Boris Johnson called some of its requirements “absurd” and “ludicrous” this week. But even as Britain’s prime minister talks up “further steps” to unilaterally mitigate the effects of his post-Brexit deal with the EU on Northern Ireland, the UK government machine is “throwing the kitchen sink” at making it work.
Trade groups have told the FT that, despite Johnson’s rhetoric, UK government officials are stepping up their efforts to implement the NI protocol — part of the 2019 Brexit divorce deal which requires all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain to comply with EU customs rules.
“Whitehall is throwing the kitchen sink at this thing,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland. “I cannot remember ever seeing this level of engagement from right across the UK government. Officials are working their rear ends off to try and make it work.”
Since the post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and the EU came into force in January, tensions have been rising between Britain and Brussels over the protocol.
Last month the European Commission launched legal action against the UK after it unilaterally extended grace periods on post-Brexit trading rules. Despite that move, the disruption and friction caused to businesses in the region since Brexit has sparked a wave of unrest, particularly in loyalist communities. Belfast has experienced some of its worst rioting in years.
Both sides say they are committed to finding a solution to the problems caused by the protocol — and are engaged in intensive talks. They are anxious to avoid stoking further violence.
But the split between the two sides — in public at least — seems to be as wide as ever. Brussels remains “emphatic” about the need for full implementation of the measures that Britain signed up to.
Meanwhile, Johnson used a BBC interview to mark the upcoming centenary of the region to insist he was “sandpapering” away the “unnecessary protuberances and barriers” thrown up by the protocol.
Working flat out
Northern Ireland trade groups say the reality on the UK side is very different to Johnson’s characterisation of the situation. They say British officials have introduced bureaucratic fixes to help make the protocol work, respecting the legal requirements set out by the agreement.
These include a scheme to avoid UK steel facing tariffs en route into Northern Ireland; stopping the Royal Mail auto-generating customs forms for goods entering the Republic of Ireland; and refining a scheme to enable companies to use their historical trading records to reduce the number of “at risk” goods liable for tariffs.
The government has also invested in a £200m Trader Support Service; a Movement Assistance Scheme to assist supermarkets and food retailers; and a £155m Digital Assistance Scheme that aims to reduce border frictions by digitising formalities, starting with fresh meat products in October this year, according to a government presentation to industry, seen by the Financial Times.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, publicly praised the government’s “excellent engagement” this week after a meeting on Tuesday with Lord David Frost, the UK minister who leads on Brexit implementation, and the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis.
“The NI business community is working flat out with the government to find solutions and, to be fair, we are getting enhanced engagement like never before,” he said, while warning of the need for a more risk-focused approach from Brussels.
The question vexing those industries most heavily affected is whether any of these efforts by the UK, many of which are based on technological solutions, will create workable solutions on the ground at a time when the European Commission is determined to take a zero-risk approach to the protocol.
EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic told the FT last week that implementing the protocol should be done in a way that minimises disruption to daily life but equally guarantees that “the integrity of the single market is preserved and there are no health hazards at all”.
“We really have to work on it and see what kind of solution we might find. It will not be easy, and probably not everything can be resolved because, indeed, the UK decided to leave the single market, customs union, SPS [veterinary] area. So there are, of course, very concrete consequences.”
‘Technology won’t sandpaper problems away’
The UK government has said it is engaging with the EU on the protocol in a “constructive atmosphere” and that, while difficult issues remained unresolved, any solutions must ensure “minimum disruption of everyday lives in Northern Ireland”.
In recent weeks both the hospitality sector, which is poised to reopen after the Covid-19 lockdown ends, and the medicines sector, have warned publicly that imposing EU laws on their supply chains will be highly problematic.
Connolly wants Brussels to accept that “an auditable and certified supply chain”, underpinned by the proposed Digital Assistance Scheme, should be enough for the EU to take a more pragmatic, risk-based approach to dealing with what he calls the “minuscule” risk to the EU single market of goods from Great Britain leaking across the Northern Ireland border with the Republic.
However, Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said there is a real limit to how much checks can be mitigated given the complex and high-speed nature of modern food and hospitality sector supply chains.
“Ministers seem to be pinning their hopes on creating a hideously expensive, digital superstructure that firefights the most immediate and visible problems, but they are not necessarily seeing how this will solidify inflexibilities and leave Northern Ireland consumers at a permanent disadvantage,” he said.
Peter Hardwick, trade policy adviser for the British Meat Processors Association, agreed. He echoed the widespread industry view that the only real ‘fix’ will be for the UK to agree closer alignment to EU rules governing food and plant products.
“Technology will not be able to sandpaper these things away. They can smooth things out a bit, but it doesn’t fix the problem, because the reality now is that a GB cow doesn’t have the same health status as a cow in NI.”