Threat looms for North’s free access to EU single market

Cantillon: EU leaders have reason to be sick of Brexit and Johnson government antics

Brexit will, it seems, never be settled. The latest row about the protocol will concern businesses on both sides of the Border. Of course the immediate issues are for companies in Northern Ireland. If the protocol issue cannot be settled, then the free access they have under its terms to the EU single market for goods could come under threat. Most businesses in the North want the protocol kept and negotiations to continue on making the flow of goods from Britain to the North as easy as possible.

There are practical steps that would solve many of the problems – but the threats now coming from London will sour the mood in EU capitals. The message from Brussels is straightforward – if the checks don’t take place, then there would be what EU chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic said was a “question mark” over the access of businesses in the North to the single market for goods.

Uncertainty and rows

Legislation put forward by the UK government to allow it to escape from some of the obligations of the protocol would take time to pass through parliament – if indeed it found sufficient support. In the meantime, the uncertainty and rows would roll on and the EU would be unlikely to enter serious talks on the details of the protocol. After all proposals it put forward last October were rejected out of hand by London, which has still not said what it proposes.

Economic damage

This uncertainty would damage the North's economy. And it raises longer-term issues for the Republic. The old Brexit question of where goods would be checked to protect the EU single market would reappear. If the UK refuses to make such checks as goods move from Britain to Northern Ireland, then will the Irish Government come under pressure to check goods as they cross the Border or leave the island of Ireland for continental ports?

So far Ireland believes that political support in the EU remains solid. A lot of diplomatic effort is going into this, But with other things on their minds, EU leaders must be well fed up with Brexit and the antics of the Johnson government.