Brexit isn’t quite “done” after all: the government wants to substantially rewrite large parts of the Northern Ireland protocol that it negotiated with the EU in late 2019.
The agreement, which created a trade border down the Irish Sea, has caused serious trade disruption for Northern Ireland and has been the focus of unionist anger in recent months, not just because of the impact on businesses but because of the threat to a larger ideological principle. After some hints that the government might take the nuclear option of triggering Article 16 to disregard the protocol altogether, David Frost and Brandon Lewis yesterday published a 28-page set of detailed proposals to instead adapt the agreement.
[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]
It has been welcomed by unionist parties in Northern Ireland and criticised by nationalist and cross-community parties, who would like to see the government negotiate a veterinary or SPS agreement with the EU outside of the protocol, which would reduce checks on goods. That is also, privately, what the EU thinks should happen. “The solution is there if they want to take it,” one EU source told me yesterday. The EU also said in a statement that it won’t renegotiate the protocol.
The British side, however, says it isn’t willing to go down the route of a veterinary agreement, which Brandon Lewis argued yesterday wouldn’t address the substantive issues with the protocol. But there’s a bigger underlying issue for the government. “We can’t move the whole EU border back round the whole UK,” is how one government source puts it.
While discussions continue, the question is whether the British side is more committed to making imperfect, practical changes, which might alleviate some of the pressure on trade in Northern Ireland, or whether Brexit purity is still the priority.