Published:

In a recent Churchill Lecture to the Europainstitut at Zürich University, David Frost suggested that the UK take it off the table in exchange for the EU committing to renegotiate the Protocol.

He also warned that if this didn’t happen then London might actually end up triggering it, and outlined what this would entail – cue the predictable pearl-clutching in the usual quarters, how dare a British politician take a view on Northern Ireland, etc.

However, his speech comes as the Government backs away yet again from taking any action. The timing is awkward; Frost proposes taking Article 16 off the table just as the Government lets another internal deadline go by without triggering it.

Admittedly the immediate grounds for backing off are much stronger this time, with the Russo-Ukrainian war putting a high premium on a Euro-British détente.

Yet the broader context is that ministers have now more than once talked up some sort of deadline for the negotiations, only to let it sail past, whilst the fundamentals – that London’s red lines and Brussels’ don’t overlap – haven’t changed.

Little wonder either that Unionists in Ulster are losing faith that action will be taken, especially with the Treasury unhelpfully trying (another bit of bad timing) to carve the Province out of old customs legislation.

Regardless, the decision to hold fire once again means the Protocol is likely to dominate the upcoming Stormont elections, which both London and Dublin had been keen to avoid, and is unlikely to help with Stormont’s stability over the next few months. Which brings us back to Frost’s speech, wherein he says:

“On the EU side, it means getting real about a Northern Ireland Protocol that is now unworkable because of the events of last year. If the Protocol isn’t redone then the poison between us will remain. Northern Irish politics is in a downward spiral that is shaking the foundations of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. It’s in everyone’s interests to deal with that, and the EU will not escape its share of the responsibility if things go wrong.”

On the UK side, he suggests several moves the Government could make to try and induce the Europeans to act. First, as mentioned above, would be to take Article 16 off the table “for now”. Second, taking a more generous approach to “mobility issues” facing tourists, musicians, and young people post-Brexit. Third, engage in finding a new way to cooperate on security issues. He then warns:

“If we can’t put something like this together, I can’t see how we will avoid Article 16 to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland, and things will remain fractious. But more importantly we will then come to a difficult moment in 2024 when three things happen – the consent vote on the Protocol, the decision whether to invoke the Article 411 rebalancing clause, and, probably, the UK General Election.”

An optimistic assessment of what’s going on here is that Frost is simply continuing the strategy he pursued when he was in charge of the negotiations: making the British position look as reasonable as possible, in order to maximise the chances of London winning the inevitable arbitration over Article 16. A pessimistic assessment would simply note that the date of reckoning seems to have been pushed all the way back to 2024.

Which brings us back to what seems to be the persistent problem with the Government’s approach to the negotiations: taking Article 16 off the table is only a useful bargaining chip if the other side believe you’ll use it. And London has given Brussels little reason, thus far, to believe it will.