David Frost, the Brexit minister, published the government’s plan for the future of the Northern Ireland protocol on Wednesday.
Lord Frost issued a command paper that would radically rework the Northern Ireland protocol – a deal he helped to negotiate and which came into force only in January, which introduced checks on goods that have been described as amounting to a border in the Irish Sea.
But the proposal was swiftly rejected by the EU. “We will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol,” said Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president, in an official statement.
It has led to officials warning of a trade war between Britain and the EU. EU sources claim that is “inevitable” if the UK refuses to back down on its demands for new post-Brexit rules on Northern Ireland.
The key paragraph of the UK government’s proposals is number 77: “To provide space for these discussions, the government believes it is vital to provide certainty and stability for businesses in Northern Ireland in the short term. Accordingly, we believe we and the EU should agree a ‘standstill’ on existing arrangements, including the operation of grace periods in force, and a freeze on existing legal actions and processes, to ensure there is room to negotiate without further cliff edges, and to provide a genuine signal of good intent to find ways forward.”
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So, for all the talk of “renegotiating” or even “tearing up” the protocol, the only specific proposal at this stage is to freeze things as they are to allow talks to take place. Nevertheless, the EU insists that its interpretation of the protocol requires new restrictions on goods going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to be imposed from 1 October.
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In my view, the UK government’s position is a reasonable one, and the EU is being inflexible – suggesting that sending sausages to Belfast supermarkets undermines the integrity of the EU single market. But I hope these are the opening negotiating positions and that good sense will prevail.
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