Brexit: Latest British move serves practical, political and diplomatic purposes

Implementing arrangements for goods moving from Ireland to Britain is complex

The British government’s decision to delay the introduction of new checks and procedures on goods moving from Ireland to Britain serves a number of practical, political and diplomatic purposes.

From January 1st, Britain plans to make its goods border with the European Union similar to those with the rest of the world, with extra customs checks and a pre-notification requirement for some goods.

As Brexit minister David Frost noted in a written statement to the House of Lords on Wednesday, implementing the arrangements for goods moving from the island of Ireland is particularly complex. The Northern Ireland protocol and British legislation guarantee "unfettered access" for goods moving from the North to England, Scotland or Wales.

Full border controls on goods coming to Britain from the Republic could encourage southern traders to reroute their goods through Northern ports. The British authorities, already struggling to meet the January 1st deadline for new border controls with mainland Europe, have yet to devise a system to distinguish between goods from the North and the Republic arriving in Britain from Northern Irish ports.


Frost said the current arrangements would continue for as long as discussions on the protocol were still going on, confirming that the negotiations would not be finished by the end of this month. He presented the delay as a “pragmatic act of good will” that can help to maintain space for continued negotiations.

Frost’s tone reflects a lowering of the temperature between London and Brussels, and both sides are focused on finding agreement on the protocol’s practical difficulties. British statements continue to mention that triggering article 16 remains an option, but in a ritualistic rather than a threatening way, and the Europeans have toned down their threats of terrible retaliation.


There could be an agreement on access to medicines in Northern Ireland by Christmas, something that will require the EU to change its own rules. Both sides are aiming for an agreement early in the new year on the other practical issues, including customs and sanitary and phytosanitary checks.

A senior British official said last week that if the negotiations fail it would not be because Britain was insisting on removing the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from the protocol.

Downing Street later distanced itself from the official’s characterisation of the shift in its position, saying that any durable solution would have to address the protocol’s governance.

But there was no denial of the assertion that the ECJ has been dropped as an issue in the current negotiations or that it is no longer a deal-breaker. That makes an agreement early in the new year a real possibility, and Wednesday’s announcement will further improve the atmosphere around the talks.