David Frost’s speech to the British Irish Association in Oxford has set the tone for what promises to be a noisy week in negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Frost will make a statement in parliament during the week to announce an extension of grace periods due to expire at the end of this month which delay the implementation of parts of the protocol. Before that, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson will make a speech in which he is expected to threaten to pull down the Stormont institutions unless the protocol is scrapped or transformed.
So the stage is set for a fresh instalment of the long-running drama of Brexit talks in crisis as Britain stands firm. Or perhaps not.
Frost's statement to the House of Lords is likely to be belligerent and graceless (Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis will deliver the same words with even less grace in the Commons) and the European Commission's response will sound weary and grudging. But the upshot will be the removal of a cliff edge at the end of September and the creation of some negotiating space to close the gap between the two sides.
Frost’s speech identified that gap as the distance between the EU’s offer to try to resolve the protocol’s problems by implementing it more flexibly and Britain’s demand for a new agreement to supplant it. Britain wants to change the protocol’s provisions on movement of goods into Northern Ireland, the standards for goods within Northern Ireland, and the governance arrangements for regulating this.
Frost also set out the limits of what his government is demanding, asserting that its proposals “go with the grain of the protocol” and did not seek to remove it. EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic recognises the real problems the protocol is creating for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland and is willing to engage with Frost on finding solutions within the framework of the agreement. But he has no mandate to negotiate outside that framework and there is no prospect of EU leaders agreeing to a renegotiation of the protocol.
Frost asserts that the threshold for triggering Article 16, which allows one party to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol, has been reached. One British commentator described the threat to trigger Article 16 as “a loaded gun on the table” but the gun is not loaded, it doesn’t work and it is locked in a box on the other side of the room.
Britain has not triggered Article 16 until now because it would not resolve the difficulties the protocol presents and it risks costly retaliation from the EU and damage to relations with Washington. Frost’s tough talk in Oxford at the weekend and at Westminster this week cannot conceal the weakness of Britain’s negotiating position.