Brexit stalemate: Will Britain and the EU agree on an agreement on Northern Ireland?

Discussions resume this week between the UK government and the EU on how to resolve the long-running dispute over trade arrangements for Northern Ireland that acidified the first year of post-Brexit relations.

Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, will try to cut the Gordian knot after her predecessor, Lord David Frost, who stepped down late last year just like London. began to withdraw from some of its toughest demands.

Truss has set a warmer tone than Frost in the initial contacts and has invited Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, to meet in her grace-and-favor mansion in Chevening, Kent, on Thursday night and promised “constructive proposals” to break the stalemate. .

But officials on both sides admit that in terms of the content of how to manage the new trade border in the Irish Sea, they are still far apart. The Financial Times is looking at the prospect of a deal.

The British position

Like her predecessor, Truss maintains that the Brexit agreement that Britain entered into in 2019 for Northern Ireland is “unsustainable” and needs a radical transformation.

The Northern Ireland Protocol left the region in the EU’s internal market for goods to avoid bringing a hard trade border back to the island of Ireland, but this necessitated the creation of a trade border in the Irish Sea.

The UK government says this trade border unnecessarily divides Britain’s own single market and causes a hit for traders in the UK, which now faces a high level of bureaucracy for sending goods from the mainland to Northern Ireland.

Truss took a hard line in one newspaper article published over the weekend and wrote that the UK wants to see “no checks or documentation for goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland”.

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London also wants the EU to amend part of the protocol, which requires any UK government aid decision that could affect the region’s commodity market to be approved in Brussels by the European Commission.

In addition, the UK wants to remove any requirement for companies in Northern Ireland to notify the EU when goods leave the EU internal market, which is required by EU law.

Finally, Britain seeks to remove the EU Supreme Court, the European Court of Justice, as the “final judge” for future disputes over the protocol. Instead, London wants an arbitration mechanism where the European Court of Justice only decides questions concerning EU law.

If Brussels does not resolve these concerns, Truss says she reserves the right to trigger the issue Article 16 safeguard clause in the protocol, which will temporarily suspend parts of the agreement while solutions are found.

She is under pressure from Conservative MPs and trade union politicians in Northern Ireland not to compromise with Brussels.

EU position

EU officials have welcomed the warmer tone from Truss, but also warned that this will not be enough to ensure a breakthrough. “We will not be seduced by a night in a country house,” an official close to the talks said.

Truss’ decision to present her demands in a newspaper article has also irritated EU countries, with patience with Britain running out of national capitals wanting to focus on the EU’s ambitious green agenda and Covid recovery.

“The government’s habit of talking to Brussels through the national press shows with Truss… Not much has changed,” a diplomat said.

As for the substance of the United Kingdom’s demands for radically reduced controls, Brussels argues that there are limits to how far it can go. If Northern Ireland is to remain in the internal market for goods, then the EU must have some oversight.

“If anything comes to the EU’s internal market … we need an overview,” Sefcovic said before Christmas.

The Commission has suspended the trial against Britain for failing to implement parts of the protocol while negotiations continue. The EU has also unilaterally moved to introduce legislative changes to ensure that the protocol does not disrupt the supply of medicines, and last October proposed some measures that it claimed could reduce customs controls by “50 percent” and controls on agricultural foods by “80 percent”.

However, the UK government disputes this assessment, saying the EU offer does not live up to what is needed to make the protocol work.

Sefcovic has avoided setting a deadline for negotiations, but the EU wants a comprehensive agreement as soon as possible, ideally before the election campaign begins in Northern Ireland in March.

The Northern Irish position

Negotiations between the EU and the UK resume as the political situation in Northern Ireland becomes more and more fragile ahead of choice on 5 May for the region’s power-sharing government, which is seen as a referendum on the protocol.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which supports Northern Ireland’s place in Britain, is fighting to retain leadership of the decentralized regional government and has threatened to pull out its ministers unless London quickly gets an agreement to remove the border with the Irish Sea.

The DUP, which feels it has been tricked by the Westminster government before, seeks to maintain pressure on Truss for fear the UK government may reach an agreement that does not live up to its demands.

In the meantime Dublin has called on London and Brussels to ensure that the protocol negotiations do not drag out in February, and Northern Ireland’s business demands that both the EU and the UK bury their political disagreements and find flexibility in Northern Ireland’s interest.

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said business was not “under any illusions” about the challenges retailers will face in the next few months.

“This is perhaps our last and best chance of reaching an agreement between the EU and the UK to allow Northern Irish companies to be competitive and retain choices and affordable prices for our households,” he added.

What’s next?

There are three paths open to Truss, all difficult to navigate.

If she triggers Article 16, EU member states have made it clear that they will retaliate quickly, including the possible suspension of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which allows duty-free and quota-free trade between the UK and its largest market.

If Truss accepts some goods checks and final supervision by the European Court of Justice, the Commission may give Britain more leeway to control the trade on its behalf.

But if she accepts this, Truss risks a backlash from the caucus for more than 80 Brexit conservative MPs, as of Sunday tweeted support for her tough opening game as an “unequivocal” statement of intent.

Alternatively, in the face of such gruesome choices, she could decide to simply keep talking, cut out current tensions and force the EU to take the first aggressive step, such as restarting the trial against Britain, which it suspended last year. .

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