Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
Last week marked five years since the EU referendum. It was a seismic political event, and Leave/Remain political identities look set to continue to drive political changes across the country for years to come.
Most polling suggests that, in hindsight, most voters have not changed their minds about their 2016 decision. Nevertheless, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats appear to see little political mileage in reopening the Brexit debate or mooting the prospect of re-joining. Perhaps this is because, while Remain and Leave identities continue to be strong forces in domestic politics, the question of actually re-entering the EU is a different matter.
A poll conducted last week by Opinium found that, when presented with four options, just 27 per cent think that Britain should re-join the EU. Of the other options, 22 per cent think we should negotiate a closer relationship than we have with the EU now, 20 per cent think the current relationship is about right and 22 per cent think we should form a more distant relationship. This suggests that future political debates about the EU are more likely to be about the type of relationship we have with Brussels and the various member states, rather than reopening the fundamental membership question.
In the here and now, the UK-EU dispute over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol continues to rumble on since it came into force six months ago, and still threatens to sour the broader relationship. A range of issues are being discussed, including chilled meats, pet travel, VAT on used cars, tariff quotas on steel, medicines, and customs processes.
Last week, appearing respectively before the Northern Ireland Affairs and Foreign Affairs Committees, Brandon Lewis and Lord Frost repeated the Government’s position that the current state of play is unsustainable, due largely to the “chilling” effect on Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade, and that all options are being considered to deal with the situation.
Yesterday, the EU formally confirmed its agreement to the UK’s request for an extension of the grace period for trade in chilled meats, which has avoided an imminent potential ban on sausages and the like being imported into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The agreement on the extension avoids a further escalation, which might have occurred if the UK had unilaterally extended the grace period, as it did with other grace periods in March this year. Meanwhile, the EU appears to have taken the view that a further public bust up isn’t in its interests at this stage.
However, the extension merely buys time over the summer rather than fundamentally resolving the situation regarding checks on food, or the wider Protocol, where the UK and EU positions remain at odds in many areas. The EU suggests the time be used for Northern Irish retailers to adjust their supply chains to source products from the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU – a further diversion of Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade. Meanwhile, the UK insists that the time be used to find permanent solutions that respect Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s customs territory.
On Monday, Maroš Šefčovič appeared before a Stormont committee, and repeated the EU’s position that the long-term solution to reducing or removing checks on food and animals should come in the form of the UK adopting Swiss-style dynamic alignment to EU agri-food rules. This would, he has suggested, remove the need for 80 per cent of checks. The alternative model – a New Zealand-style mutual recognition of standards – would reduce checks but leave many in place, he added.
Yet, the fact that Switzerland and New Zealand each have their own arrangements would suggest that a bespoke arrangement for Northern Ireland ought to be possible. This is what the UK is proposing. Frost has rejected a Swiss-style approach, describing it as an “abrogation of sovereignty”, since the EU would insist on the “ability to police it through its institutions”, such as the EU Court.
Frost outlined to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the UK’s proposal is based on a bespoke equivalence arrangement, whereby both sides acknowledge each other’s current high food safety standards, and if either side diverges from those standards, then the other side can increase checks and controls accordingly. Ultimately, this is likely to require the EU to change its own border rules, which Brussels has fiercely resisted up to now, insisting that any flexibilities must be agreed within the legal confines of the Protocol and existing EU law.
However, in a significant departure form that stance, Sefcovic told this week’s Stormont Committee session that the EU would be prepared to change its own legislation in the particular case of medicines placed on the NI market, which under the current terms fall within the purview of the EU, rather than UK, regulator. “We want to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland have full access to all the medicines they need,” he said. “This will not be easy, as this would require a change of our EU rules but I am committed to do this important effort if it requires actual legislative change on our side.”
If EU law can be tailored for medicines, why not in other areas, since it is not only medicines that are a publicly sensitive issue under the Protocol.
A poll of voters in Northern Ireland by LucidTalk for academics at Queen’s University Belfast, published yesterday, found that, while 67 per cent said they believe that Northern Ireland does need “particular arrangements” for managing the impact of Brexit, 43 per cent agree that the protocol is, on balance, good for Northern Ireland, whereas 48 per cent think that it is not. And, while 57 per cent think the Protocol provides Northern Ireland with a “unique set of post-Brexit economic opportunities”, by providing it access to both EU and UK markets, more than two thirds see the Protocol impacting negatively on political stability.
The UK’s current approach appears to be to grind away at the EU position, rather than adopt further unilateral measures at this stage. However, with the Protocol continuing to cause major problems on the ground, despite the current stop-gap easements in place, this position may be revisited in the autumn if the stalemate continues.