UK ministers must read the protocol they signed

The UK’s European Union negotiator and its secretary of state for Northern Ireland published a remarkable article in The Irish Times last week, writes John Bruton.

They complained of what they called the “inflexible requirement to treat movement of goods [from Britain] into Northern Ireland, as if they were crossing an EU external frontier, with the full panoply of checks and controls”.

It appears they never read the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol which is part of the Agreement under which the UK withdrew from the EU. For this is precisely what the UK agreed to, in great detail, in the Protocol.

Annex 2 of this Protocol lists the EU laws which are to apply “in and to the UK in respect of Northern Ireland”.

The first item on this very long list is Customs Code of the EU. This is a rigorous code with exacting procedures, as the UK knows well.

Also listed are EU laws on the collection of trade statistics, product safety, electrical equipment, medical products, food safety and hygiene, GMOs and animal diseases. The list is specific. It refers to each item of EU legislation by its full title.

The UK is fully familiar with all the legislation in the Annex, because the UK, as an EU member state at the time, took part in drafting each one of these laws. It also had a reputation as a country that applied EU laws more conscientiously than most.

These controls have to be enforced somewhere. This can be done either at a land border or at a sea border.

The UK ministers, writing in The Irish Times, say preventing a hard land border on the island of Ireland remains essential.

So, if the controls are not to be exercised on the land border in Ireland, where do the UK ministers propose to exercise them?

Vague waffle

The two ministers make no attempt to answer this question. They offer no constructive suggestions at all, apart from using slogans such as “balance” and “flexibility” in the implementation of the very precise laws listed in the Protocol.

The ministers do not attempt to deal with the requirements for protecting Ireland’s position as a member of the EU Single Market. They do not deal with the possibility that, if product parts or food ingredients, that do not meet EU standards, can come into Northern Ireland, cross the border, and thus become incorporated in an EU supply chain originating here, our position as part of the EU Single Market is undermined. It would not be long before there would be calls from continental competitors for checks on goods originating in Ireland at continental ports and airports. All that would be needed to set that off would be a single event, perhaps to do with a scandal over food standards.

Let us not forget that the UK government has said they propose to diverge from EU standards in future. Indeed Boris Johnson said divergence is the “whole point” of Brexit. UK standards may be similar to ours now. That will not be the case five years from now.

No idle threat?

At the end of the article, the two ministers say that, if solutions are not found (although they do not offer any), “we will of course have to consider all our options”. In diplomatic terms, for British ministers to use such words, in an Irish newspaper, is menacing.

A large non-EU state is threatening a small EU state, with whom it has a land boundary, with unspecified actions, because of the out working of an international Treaty, to which the larger state freely agreed, less than two years ago.

Nowhere in the article by the two ministers is there even a hint that they take responsibility for the Protocol they negotiated. If a business man agreed a binding contract a year or so ago, then did not like part of it, and wanted to renegotiate that part, one would expect him to be somewhat apologetic and to offer alternative ways of achieving the goals of the other party. But there was no hint of either contrition, or constructiveness, in the article of Lord Frost and Brandon Lewis . . . just menace.

It is clear from the article of the two ministers that they have no intention of using the grace period as intended by the EU, to allow traders to make adjustments to their supply chains. They intend to use the time inciting feeling against the EU and endeavouring to pressurise EU states individually, in the hope that the EU will dilute or corrode the legal foundations of EU Single Market, in the interest of domestic UK politics.

There are suggestions that the UK even wants the EU to recognise the new goods standards the UK will make, as somehow “equivalent” to EU standards, and give them the same rights to circulate in the EU as goods from the 27 EU states, that comply to the letter with EU standards. A dangerous precedent would be set. If the EU conceded this to a country that had left the EU, existing EU members would soon look for their own local exceptions to EU standards, and the Single Market would wither away.

Brexit was a British idea. Brexit means border controls. They should deal with the logical consequences of their own freely chosen policies.

John Bruton is a former taoiseach and EU ambassador to Washington

First published by the Irish Times and reproduced with the author’s permission