UK accuses the EU of ‘putting the single market first’ over Northern Ireland

Ahead of this week’s UK meetings (9 June) on the EU-UK Partnership Council (to discuss the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement) and the Joint Committee to discuss the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. David Frost has continued to ruffle feathers, writes Catherine Feore.

In an op-ed in the Financial Times, Frost claims that the UK underestimated the effect of the protocol on goods movements to Northern Ireland. Frost asserts that the UK will “take no lectures on whether we are implementing the protocol — we are”, which is odd given that the UK has chosen to unilaterally suspend application of certain provisions, ignoring both the commitments made and the means within the agreement to deal with any dispute arising from the implementation of the agreement. The UK’s unilateral action has given the EU little choice but to take the first steps under its infringement procedure. 

Frost claims that the UK has been constructive and has made detailed proposals, for example, suggesting a veterinary agreement based on equivalence and for an authorised trader scheme to reduce checks, but says he has heard little back from the EU side in response to these suggestions. 

However, the EU has repeatedly made it clear to the UK that an agreement based on equivalence would not be satisfactory despite the existence of equivalence agreements with other third countries, such as Canada and New Zealand. The Commission argue that the complexity and scale of the trade between the EU and UK would not meet the EU’s risk requirements. The UK has repeatedly said that because it has just left the EU it is in effect aligned with the EU and that the EU is using excessive caution. The EU in turn points out that the UK has repeatedly signalled its intent to diverge from EU rules as a benefit of leaving the EU.

Former Chief of Staff to Theresa May Gavin Barwell challenged some of Frost’s claims. In particular: “It’s tempting to believe that – despite all the warnings – the government “underestimated the effect of the protocol”, but I’m pretty sure it’s not true. They knew it was a bad deal but agreed it to get Brexit done, intending to wriggle out of it later.” Which would suggest that the “bad faith” the Commission has identified started long before the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland acknowledged that the Internal Market Act would breach international law in a “specific and limited way”.

Today (7 June) a European Commission source outlined the concessions and flexibilities the UK was willing to offer. The source said that on medicines they acknowledged the problem and were exploring solutions that would allow, under certain conditions, certain functions to be located in GB for medicines specifically authorised for the NI market. The flexibility goes beyond those already allowed in urgent situations under EU law.  

The Commission are examining a derogation for guide dogs entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain based on an existing derogation in EU law concerning assistance dogs.

Other solutions are being put forward to everything from access to affordable second-hand cars through to changes to the VAT Margin Scheme to facilitating contacts between the UK and the European Food Safety Agency to expedite the risk assessment of any UK high-risk plants intended for export to the EU. 

The EU source said the EU’s IT teams are working flat out to ensure the swift handling of entry/exit data for SPS goods, but that the system would not be ready before 2022. There are also certain flexibilities on the tagging of animals and the Commission has recognised that there was an unanticipated problem on tariff rate quotas (TRQ) for steel, where the EU was exploring solutions.

Despite the willingness to accommodate some of the UK’s concerns the unilateral and the aggressive approach taken by Lord Frost has dampened hopes that this week’s meeting will reach any breakthrough. Diplomats from all 27 EU countries have decided to exercise their right to attend the meeting, suggesting that there is widespread interest. 

The European Council recently added the UK to the list of urgent issues for its May meeting and called for the full and effective implementation of the agreements and for their governance structures to be made operational.

Concern had also arisen about attempts by the UK to make discrete agreements with EU member states on a bilateral basis. In its conclusions the heads of government called on the UK to respect the principle of non-discrimination among member states.

A senior UK official briefing journalists this afternoon said the protocol has a number of objectives and claimed that the EU was only thinking of the protection of the single market – which of course is the vital and primary interest of the EU and its constituent parts. Nevertheless, the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol was itself a major compromise by the EU to recognise the special circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland. 

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