Published:

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Following Lord Frost’s departure from the Government, the Prime Minister has handed Liz Truss and Chris Heaton-Harris, the newly appointed Minister of State for Europe, the lead responsibility of dealing with Brussels. This evening, Truss will host European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic at Chevening for the latest round of negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In his letter of resignation, Frost described Brexit as “now secure”, and it is a symbolic step to move EU policy into the “foreign affairs” box. The relationship will continue to touch on many domestic policy areas, but it is no longer the all-consuming issue it was prior to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) being reached.

While a member, EU affairs were clearly as much domestic as they were foreign, since EU law applied to so many different areas of UK policy. Shifting responsibilities from the Cabinet Office to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office reflects the fact that the UK must move towards treating the EU relationship as just another component, albeit an important one, of its wider foreign policy.

Some have suggested a more Machiavellian motivation in handing such a high-profile brief to a future leadership contender. The negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol remain unresolved and have been described as a “poisoned chalice”. Either way, the protocol continues to present a major political challenge for the Government.

Frost was criticised by some commentators for playing hardball on the protocol, but his tactics were effective in putting Brussels on the back foot. The EU moved from refusing to engage in any negotiations on the protocol at all to accepting the need for changes.

Just prior to Frost’s departure, Brussels offered to unilaterally amend EU law, which it had previously categorically ruled out, to ensure Northern Ireland can legally access UK-approved medicines from Great Britain.

Despite these concessions, the sides remain far apart on the other issues raised by the UK in its July 2021 Command Paper. Last October, the European Commission proposed measures that it claimed could reduce customs checks by “50 per cent” and checks on agrifoods by “80 per cent”.

However, the UK disputes this analysis and says the EU offer falls far short of what is necessary to make the protocol work. Business groups have also suggested the EU’s proposals do not go far enough.

In July, Frost had stated that the threshold for the UK triggering Article 16 had been met. Despite a stated preference for a negotiated outcome, it seemed that triggering Article 16 was a question of when, rather than if. It was notable that Frost did not cite policy on the Northern Ireland Protocol as a factor leading to his resignation, but with much still hanging in the balance there is understandably speculation about what happens now.

As negotiations have dragged on, there has been growing suspicion that the UK is preparing to soften its position in order to put the issue to bed. However, like her predecessor, Truss has made it clear that the Government is seeking fundamental changes to the way the Protocol is implemented.

The Foreign Secretary set out the main points of contention in an article for the Sunday Telegraph. These include “no checks or documentation for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and staying there.” The UK also wants changes to the sections of the protocol that require a subsidy decision taken in Westminster that could impact Northern Ireland’s market in goods to be cleared first by the European Commission. Finally, the UK wants to address the governance arrangements, ending the role of the European Court of Justice “as the final arbiter of disputes”.

Meanwhile, Truss has repeated the UK position that triggering Article 16 to relieve the economic and political disruption caused by the protocol is a legitimate course of action, if a negotiated solution cannot be found.

There are several aggravating issues threatening the stability of the Northern Ireland institutions, for example including over the Irish language, but the protocol is chief among them, given that all the Unionist parties oppose it. After meeting with Truss, Jeffrey Donaldson called on the Government to set out a timetable for how and when changes will be made to the Northern Ireland Protocol but “paused” his previous threat to withdraw DUP Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive.

The DUP leader has therefore granted space for Truss to take another shot at a negotiated solution with the EU. It is also notable that the DUP leader has recently placed a clear priority on the trade disruption caused by the Protocol in his demands.

“In the end, what we want is Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market restored. We want to see an end to checks on the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland,” Donaldson said this week. “It is wrong that companies and consumers in Northern Ireland have to complete customs paperwork on the movement of goods within their own country. Those are the kind of issues that are a priority for us, notwithstanding the need to reach agreement on the wider issues such as governance,” he said.

These demands are consistent with paragraph 50 of the 2017 UK/EU Joint Report on withdrawal, which was inserted on the insistence of the DUP, and committed the UK to ensuring “the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.” In the eventual protocol text, the meaning of “access” was subsequently narrowed to mean exports from Northern Ireland to the UK market.

The DUP leader appears ready to sell a deal that satisfactorily addresses the trade issues, so if the EU is prepared to move again, a solution appears possible. However, with the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May fast approaching, it is also clear that there is a finite time horizon for these negotiations to bear fruit.

If there is no sign of significant progress before the campaign commences, Donaldson may see no alternative other than to follow through with his threat to withdraw from the Executive. This would be a major a blow to the Northern Irish institutions, from which it would be difficult to recover in the current climate.

As the UK side has argued all along, if the protocol is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which relies on the consent of both communities, the UK and the EU are duty bound to try to avert such an outcome.