Q&A: What is going on with the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The protocol was originally set up as an arrangement to govern trade across the Irish Sea post-Brexit
Q&A: What is going on with the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Businesses and traders are upset at the added red tape and the delays that have come along with the protocol.

Brexit is back in the news thanks to the controversy surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Here, we look at what the protocol is and why it is causing issues. 

First, what is the Northern Ireland protocol?

The protocol was set up as an arrangement to govern trade across the Irish Sea post-Brexit.

Negotiated between the UK and EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it was how both sides overcame the main logjam in the Brexit divorce talks – the Irish land border.

To avoid disrupting cross-border trade and a return of checkpoints along the politically sensitive frontier, London and Brussels essentially agreed to move new regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea.

That meant checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, rather than on goods moving north and south within the island of Ireland.

Products shipped from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are largely unaffected by the protocol.

However, the red tape instead applies on movement in the other direction.

How does the protocol work?

While the rest of the UK has left, Northern Ireland has remained in the EU single market for goods. The region also applies EU customs rules at its ports, even though it is still part of the UK customs territory.

The protocol also sees Northern Ireland follow certain EU rules on state aid and VAT on goods.

The protocol was set up as an arrangement governing trade across the Irish Sea post-Brexit. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
The protocol was set up as an arrangement governing trade across the Irish Sea post-Brexit. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Why are people annoyed by it?

Businesses and traders are upset at the added red tape and the delays that have come along with the protocol.

Businesses who move goods from GB to NI have been saddled with added costs and admin.

In the early weeks of 2021, this was evidenced by depleted supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland. While the bureaucracy has continued to hinder trade since, many businesses have adjusted and adapted their processes to try to minimise the impact.

Politically, unionists and loyalists are furious from a constitutional perspective.

They believe the arrangements have driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, with the protocol forcing an economic reorientation with the Irish Republic.

In September, DUP leader Jeffery Donaldson threatened to pull down powersharing at Stormont if major changes to the protocol were not secured.

What has Europe done to end the stand-off?

To end the protocol row, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic announced a series of measures to tackle the disruption.

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic during a press conference at the Crowne Plaza hotel, Belfast, at the end of his two-day visit to Northern Ireland last month. Picture: PA Wire
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic during a press conference at the Crowne Plaza hotel, Belfast, at the end of his two-day visit to Northern Ireland last month. Picture: PA Wire

Mr Sefcovic unveiled a series of measures that would slash regulatory checks and dramatically cut customs processes on the movement of goods between Britain and the island of Ireland.

The measures would see an 80% reduction in checks envisaged for retail agri-food products arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The proposed changes also remove the prospect of certain British produce, including Cumberland sausages, being banned from export to the region.

The EU plan to ease the resultant trade friction also includes a 50% reduction in customs paperwork required to move products into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The EU has also offered to legislate to ensure no disruption to the supply line of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

What has Britain said about the changes?

The UK government said that it wants “intensive talks” to follow the EU’s proposals.

However, Mr Frost said that there is “a long way to go” to reach a resolution in the protocol.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Frost told Politico that the UK is studying the EU proposals “constructively”.

“Clearly they have proposed some changes; we do need to understand that detail, and we’ve begun that conversation, but there’s quite a long way to go,” he said.

And what is Article 16?

Article 16 allows either side in the row to suspend the agreement if it is causing difficulties.

The British Government has given the EU a December deadline to find a solution to the protocol.

The UK’s Brexit minister – David Frost – said triggering Article 16 would be the UK’s only option if differences with the EU could not be resolved.

He has since appeared to row back on a threat to trigger the clause in the Brexit deal which would effectively suspend elements of the arrangements that prevent a hard border in Ireland.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs said the Government held high-level discussions this week with the Biden administration over the UK's plans to trigger Article 16.

Mr Coveney said contact with the US Government on the issue was designed to “encourage progress” in negotiations between Mr Frost and his EU counterpart, European Commission vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

Mr Frost is to meet with Mr Sefcovic on Friday for further talks.

What has been said in Ireland?

Last month, the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs Minister welcomed efforts by the EU to end the stalemate.

Micheál Martin said the proposals to tackle issues around the protocol were “the obvious way forward”.

Mr Martin said no-one should be under “any illusions” about the importance of keeping all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement in place, and had emphasised this to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Micheál Martin welcomed efforts by the EU to end the stalemate.
Micheál Martin welcomed efforts by the EU to end the stalemate.

He added that the EU has proved how “open and willing” it is to bring a resolution to post-Brexit trade issues in the North.

Simon Coveney said he “strongly welcomed” the proposals.

“This is a major effort by the EU to address concerns raised around the protocol,” he said.

“The European Commission has listened to the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland and has produced far-reaching proposals that comprehensively address the practical, genuine issues that matter most to them.

“These proposals represent a real opportunity for Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland – especially those in the business community – want the protocol to work well.” 

The DUP leader said on Thursday that the proposed protocol changes “fall short of what is needed”.

So what’s all this about the European Court of Justice?

Under the terms of the protocol – agreed by the UK and EU in 2019 – the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would be the final arbitrator on any future disputes between the UK and EU on the operation of the protocol.

The UK government said it only agreed to an ECJ role in the protocol due to the “very specific circumstances of that negotiation” as the UK pressed to get a Brexit deal done.

The ECJ issue has not featured significantly in the intense public and political debate over the protocol in Northern Ireland.

Mr Coveney said that the UK does ultimately want a deal on the protocol, but said that the ECJ is a red herring which is not reflected on the ground in Northern Ireland.

Mr Frost said that there will be a need for “significant changes” on the ECJ if there is going to be an agreement.

Mr Sefcovic however, said the discussions will not be a renegotiation.

The EC vice-president said he does not have a mandate for renegotiation, saying: “We should really do the last mile, work constructively with all the proposals we put on the table, put it finally to bed”. 

This article was originally published on October 15

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