Sammy Wilson is the Democratic Unionist MP for East Antrim, and is Director of the Centre for Brexit Policy.
As the full implications of the Northern Ireland protocol begin to be manifested, it is clear that this arrangement, which was designed solely to protect the EU’s Single Market, has destroyed the UK’s internal market.
It is damaging Northern Ireland businesses, denies tens of thousands of Northern Ireland consumers the ability to purchase all manner of goods from suppliers in Great Britain, has resulted in the rigorous applications of petty EU rules, and has caused tensions which threaten to spill over into violence on Northern Ireland’s streets.
All of this was totally predictable. The Nothern Ireland protocol contains 70 pages of lists of EU directives and regulations which have to apply to Northern Ireland. These rules require customs declarations are for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and cover everything from container loads of food destined for supermarkets to items worth a few pounds ordered over the internet from Amazon for personal use. Health inspections, certificates and border checks have added to time delays and increased costs.
Petty rule enforcement means that goods carried on wooden pallets which don’t meet EU standards, but that are perfectly safe and legal across the UK, are being turned away. Machinery being brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain is refused entry if there is any soil residue on it. Indeed, since January 1st, British soil is now deemed a danger to the safety of EU horticulture and therefore plants cannot be brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain in case Northern Ireland becomes the Ho Chi Minh trail for infiltrating the EU market with horticulture devastation.
And all of this is occurring while we are still in the period of grace – whereby the most damaging requirements of the Protocol are not being enforced. So the potential for further economic damage and constitutional destruction hasn’t even begun to be felt. Under the protocol, Northern Ireland is required to follow thousands of EU rules from the past, and all future EU Single Market rules – into which no one in Northern Ireland will have any input. Adherence will be enforceable through the European Court of Justice.
Despite the clear damage that the Protocol is doing and will do to the Northern Ireland economy, and the place of Northern Ireland within the UK, there are those who demand its full implementation because it is an internationally legally binding agreement.
Of course, the EU has now shown that it don’t see the Protocol in that way. In order to escape the wrath of citizens across the EU who are angry at the bungling ineptitude of the EU commission over the purchase and distribution of Covid vaccines, the EU was prepared to scrap the most important objective of the Protocol, and set up checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The fact that it swiftly withdrew this proposal after outrage was expressed by the Irish government is neither here nor there. They didn’t even apologise – and have reserved the right to do the same again if they believe it is necessary.
Now is the time to replace this discredited agreement. The answer is not further grace periods as Michael Gove has suggested: after all, the damage being done at present is occurring during a grace period. The answer is not to beg the EU for some minor derogations. A workable alternative is needed.
The Mutual Enforcement proposal put forward by the Centre for Brexit Policy meets the EU demand for protection of its Single Market while protecting Northern Ireland from having to be included in that market – thus avoiding the constitutional and economic damage which this does.
Put simply Northern Ireland firms exporting into the EU would be required to meet all EU standards and pay any EU taxes on the goods which they export. The export declarations which they make would have to show that they were doing so, and would be confirmed by regulatory bodies in Northern Ireland.
Ann exporters that do not comply can then be pursued on both sides of the border. The same arrangements would be in place in the Republic of Ireland. There is no need for border posts, which can be easily avoided anyway. A mutual enforcement structure implies constant enforcement on both sides of the border, so the EU would benefit from the protection of the UK enforcement authorities as well as its own.
The solution is not to tinker with this flawed and ruinous agreement. Instead, it needs replacing with a workable alternative.