The Irish Times view on the Northern Ireland protocol: a chance to break the deadlock

Frustration is growing in EU states, fuelled by perceptions that London has still not accepted that the protocol is a binding treaty legal obligation, and not up for renegotiation

On Wednesday the EU-UK Joint Committee meets again to discuss implementation and the EU’s representative, Commissioner Maros Sefcovic (above), warns it will be a litmus test. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/ AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday the EU-UK Joint Committee meets again to discuss implementation and the EU’s representative, Commissioner Maros Sefcovic (above), warns it will be a litmus test. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/ AFP via Getty Images

 

Another crunch week for the EU/UK relationship looms. Throughout their troubled course, Brexit talks advanced only through the pressure of a legal or political deadline, a moment promising to change the rules of the game. Then, typically, London scrambled to push a deal over the line. Now this may be such a moment for the deadlocked implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which requires checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea to obviate the need for a North-South border.

On Wednesday the EU-UK Joint Committee meets again to discuss implementation and the EU’s representative, Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, warns it will be a litmus test.

Frustration is growing in the member states, fuelled by perceptions that London has still not accepted that the protocol is a binding treaty legal obligation, and not up for renegotiation. This was the price that the UK accepted for its misguided Brexit. The frustration has been amplified in many capitals by the repeated London threat to invoke article 16 of the protocol, repudiating its provisions, and its illegal, unilateral extension of implementation dates in breach of the treaty’s provisions and now subject of infringement proceedings.

Under EU law both measures may prompt proportionate retaliation against the offending country and there are moves among the 27 to impose such, in the form of tariffs against UK goods entering the single market. Unless, that is, Wednesday shows meaningful flexibility on London’s part. Member states are not obliged to wait for the European court to implement such measures.

Pressure on the British government, which this week hosts the G7 summit, is also expected from US president Joe Biden, who has warned that he will raise his protocol concerns with the Boris Johnson. That could prove embarrassing to the UK, which is trying to use the summit to brand itself as a global champion of free trade in the “rules-based” international marketplace.

For Dublin and Belfast, both on the sidelines of these discussions, there is also frustration that London does not appear to be ready even to embrace the sort of measures that could mitigate the protocol. Most obviously, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin argued to new DUP leader Edwin Poots, a veterinary and phyto-sanitary deal like that with Switzerland, recognising common animal and food health standards in the EU and UK, could cut checks on the Irish Sea by 80 per cent. Poots, while maintaining his demand for the removal of the protocol, indicated his willingness to support such “temporary” measures.

London, essentially Johnson and his negotiator David Frost, remain adamant that they can brook no deals accepting EU-set standards which would curtail their ability to do international trade deals. Another circle that will not square.

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