Progress? This morning’s papers report the the UK and the EU may be on the cusp of an agreement to extend the ‘grace periods’ for fresh foodstuffs being shipped from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. The FT reports:
“The EU offer of an extension would be subject to broad conditions, including UK commitments to work towards longer-term, more sustainable solutions for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and steps ensuring there are no threats to the single market.”
If true, this would spare the Government having to unilaterally extend them, as it has previously, in order to prevent east-west supply chains being severed by the Irish Sea border.
Obviously it is too soon to celebrate. It remains entirely unclear what ‘more sustainable solutions’ there are that reconcile the EU’s attitude towards what Maroš Šefčovič calls its “economic border” and the Government’s current determination to defend the integrity of the British internal market. Talk of ‘win-win’ outcomes from the Irish side usually end up meaning UK alignment with EU rules.
The border is also already undermining that market, redirecting trade southwards, undermining Northern Ireland’s economic links with the mainland and placing much of its economy under the political control of external institutions. Even if Lord Frost can secure a win on food supplies, it will take much more to truly offset the harm the Protocol is doing to the Union.
Nonetheless, he and Brandon Lewis surely deserve credit for at least getting Brussels back to the table. I reported in March how his appointment to his current post signalled that the Government recognised that there was a battle that needed to be fought over the Irish Sea, and so far Boris Johnson has backed that up. It signalled a welcome shift from last December, when it looked as if Michael Gove might be resigned to the loss of Britain-to-Ulster supply chains.
The EU’s decision to grant an extension also suggests that the Government’s strategy of taking small, carefully-targeted steps and taking pains to look like the reasonable party has paid off. Brussels clearly didn’t think that provoking the UK into another unilateral extension was a winning move.
But the real question is whether or not this signals any deeper shift in attitudes on their part. For all their warm words about solidarity with Ireland and protecting the peace in Ulster, the reality is that the EU has consistently prioritised the sanctity of its commercial frontier over either. Hence the insistence that they would demand the full panoply of checks on any land border, or failing that, that they might even introduce a sea border with the Republic.
If mutual respect and the warm words about the Belfast Agreement had any meaning, the breadth and depth of unionist and loyalist opposition to the Protocol would demand a rethink. Instead, as usual, they are being told to lump it. But if Agreement and the architecture it laid down continue to be wielded in a manner so obviously dismissive of unionists’ rights and concerns, their support for it will come under increasing strain.
The Irish Sea border is the product of a humiliating diplomatic defeat, blundered into by Theresa May and the old Northern Ireland Office. It is symptomatic of a deep-seated malaise in London’s approach to Northern Ireland that will be a long time in the fixing. But recognising the need to deliver fundamental changes to the Protocol is a good start.