Call for solution to protocol tensions in open letter to UK and EU

Britain’s Brexit minister says proposals to EU aim to find ‘new balance’ in agreement

Brexit minister David Frost: ‘Some would like us to sweep all the existing arrangements away. That is not our position.’ Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

Brexit minister David Frost: ‘Some would like us to sweep all the existing arrangements away. That is not our position.’ Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

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More than 50 civic and business leaders, trade unionists and academics have signed an open letter calling on the UK and EU to work together with the Northern Executive and the Irish Government to deliver “balanced, bespoke and reasonable solutions” to the tensions caused by Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol.

They warned that support for the North’s peace process “cannot be rhetorical” and said the “re-establishment of trust” between the UK and EU was “central to dialogue” and “imperative to the peace process”.

The letter, published on Sunday, was drafted by peacebuilding charity Co-operation Ireland and the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.

Its signatories included Ann McGregor, chair of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Paul Bartholomew, vice-chancellor of Ulster University, Owen Reidy, assistant general secretary of trade union Ictu, and former leader of Alliance party John Alderdice.

The letter also stressed the need for conversations ahead of the end of some Brexit grace periods in October and encouraged discussion framed by three areas: proportionality; structured and meaningful engagement, including with civic society; and a focus on the opportunities offered by the protocol.

On Saturday Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost rejected any solution to the dispute over the protocol that is based on a more flexible approach to its rules. He told the British-Irish Association in Oxford that negotiations with the European Union must address the way the protocol is constructed rather than just how it is implemented.

“We need to see substantial and significant change. It is going to need serious engagement with our proposals, and specifically with the three areas that we say need to change – movement of goods into Northern Ireland, the standards for goods within Northern Ireland and the governance arrangements for regulating this. I want to be clear that any response which avoids serious engagement with those ideas, and aims at just dragging out the process, will, in the end, not work for us,” he said.

The EU has not formally responded to a British paper outlining the proposals published in July, but officials have been in talks during August. Mr Frost has requested a standstill period during which grace periods delaying the implementation of parts of the protocol would be extended and the EU would pause legal action against Britain over breaches of the agreement.

The EU has already paused its legal action but has not yet announced an extension of grace periods due to expire at the end of September. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Friday that the EU had shown its ability to respond positively to the concerns of people in Northern Ireland, adding that he believed “sensible solutions” could be found within the framework of the protocol.

‘Balance’

Mr Frost said his proposals sought to find a new balance in the protocol but that they went with the grain of the agreement.

“They do not remove it. They retain controls in the Irish Sea for certain purposes. They envisage that EU laws can still be valid, within certain circumstances, in Northern Ireland. And they recognise that the EU and Ireland have an extremely legitimate interest in how these arrangements are enforced. Some would like us to sweep all the existing arrangements away. That is not our position,” he said.

Mr Frost asserted that the threshold for triggering Article 16, which allows one party to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol, had been met. But he wanted instead to use Article 13 (8) of the agreement, which allows the protocol to be superseded by a new agreement between Britain and the EU.

“You should be in no doubt about the centrality of this problem to our politics and to this government. The issue needs to be fixed and we are determined to fix it,” he said.

Earlier, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told the conference that Britain would invest £730 million (€852 million) in the new Peace Plus programme to support economic stability, peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The programme is the successor to EU-funded programmes that supported peace and reconciliation and the cross-Border economy.