It is an unwelcome time for tension between the UK and the EU, when cooperation is vital to confront the war in Ukraine and the political impasse faced by Northern Ireland persists. Yet there is no simple solution to the current standoff.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into effect last January, was agreed upon with the aim of preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. While initially described as a “good arrangement” by the Prime Minister, the government now plans to scrap parts of the deal.
The government’s main concern is the threat the protocol poses to political stability and power-sharing in Northern Ireland, as well as disruption to trade at the border due to additional bureaucracy and costs for businesses. The resulting command paper published in July 2021 outlined multiple significant reforms to the protocol, including the creation of ‘green and red channels’ on trading within the UK and a ‘dual regulatory zone’ that replaces the requirement to comply with EU regulation.
However, there is a fundamental – and so far paralysing – difference in opinion between the UK and EU as to whether the underlying agreement underpinning the protocol should change. The EU, standing firm in their reluctance to drastically renegotiate or reopen the text of the protocol, wishes to only implement changes that can be accommodated within the currently agreed framework. The UK position as expressed by Liz Truss, would heavily alter the agreement or else suspend it.
Questions of UK legitimacy and intention in their actions on this front have clouded UK-EU relations with distrust.
The unilateral approach adopted by the UK has given reason to doubt that their proposals are, in reality, being made ‘in good faith’, and in line with international law – the EU is likely to consider the imposition of the new proposals as unlawful under Article 4 of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Further, the extent of the UK’s proposed changes suggests the possible elimination of involving EU institutions altogether in the management of the future protocol – one such amendment involves replacing the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) with “independent arbitration”. The plan to allow firms to produce goods either to UK or EU standards as a part of the ‘dual regulatory zone’ also presents a potential step towards obstructing EU involvement in the protocol.
There is some truth to these claims. While the UK government has presented their proposals as intending to help trade and business for NI firms, this does not match with the realities of these businesses. A series of surveys by Manufacturing NI found that from July 2021 to the start of this year, there has been a distinct rise in the number of NI traders who accept the imposition of the protocol yet wish for a smoother process through simplification and mitigation. It appears, from this survey data, that initial disruption to NI firms was due to lack of preparedness and detail, as opposed to the actual processes imposed by the protocol. Most manufacturers want the protocol fixed, not abandoned. This gives credence to claims that the government has other incentives to drastically reform the protocol than solely those they announce.
Recognising that consumers may face increased prices as a result of the protocol, it is also important to consider the risk of retaliatory action by the EU in response to UK unilateralism – unwillingness to cooperate with the EU may ultimately hurt UK consumers.
It is evident that the UK and EU are facing a deadlock. The UK government feels justified in their proposal to override parts of the protocol, while the EU refuses to bow to the UK’s demands.
While the motivation behind the UK’s agenda may be unclear, this does not take away from the fact that the practicalities of the protocol must be improved upon. Future cooperation on the issue, however, requires flexibility from both sides moving forward. The EU must show a greater willingness to compromise and engage with the UK’s new proposals. Equally, the UK must prove itself a trustworthy partner by avoiding unilateral decision-making in favour of cooperation. If both sides fail to make concessions, the possibility of intensified trade conflict and greater instability in Northern Ireland looms ahead.