Richard North, 06/06/2021  

While UK food industries seem to be coming to terms with Brexit-related problems, hopes spring eternal with the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) where, it is acknowledged that food standards are to key to the disruption in Northern Irish trade.

So far, we've seen little progress in resolving the ongoing dispute about the protocol and relations are deteriorating to the point where European leaders are drawing up plans to impose trade sanctions on Britain, accusing Johnson of "taking them for fools" over the negotiations.

Nor, it seems, is the recently ennobled David Frost making any friends in Brussels. Senior EU diplomats claimed that he has "completely failed to engage" with the Commission on implementing the protocol, which is to be discussed this coming week at the first meeting of the UK/EU partnership Council. It seems, after all, that they've got the thing up and running.

Concerned that the UK might seek to dismantle the agreement, one EU diplomatic source has warned that Brussels would be prepared to take unilateral action.

"You are starting to hear member states say that the time has come to show Britain that we're serious", this source tells The Times. He adds that "Johnson signed the protocol and he needs to implement it. If we don't get that clear indication in the coming weeks then we’re looking at imposing retaliatory trade tariffs".

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, is not terribly happy with this, telling the Irish Times that, from an Irish perspective, the last thing we want here is a legal standoff between the two sides or retaliation on the back of non-compliance with international agreements".

This is despite the sense within the EU and EU capitals that the frustration has got to result in the EU perhaps changing the approach", Coveney says, adding: "And instead of constantly trying to offer solutions and flexibility, remind the UK that there are consequences to not implementing agreements that have a basis in international law".

But now, is seems, Coveney is resuscitating an old idea, arguing that Britain could resolve 80 percent of the difficulties being caused by the protocol to food prices and delayed imports if it struck an SPS deal with the EU.

He claims that there is widespread support across business, farming and politics for an SPS agreement, even though Johnson's administration has already ruled out the idea – not least because it could limit the scope of a UK-US trade deal.

Whether this is even on the cards, though, is questionable. Most of the noise on this seems to come from Coveney and there has never been a detailed proposal from the Commission or any suggestion that this is the silver bullet that would solve the impasse.

As SPS agreements, even with countries such as New Zealand, are limited in scope, it is hard to see how this option could solve Northern Ireland's problems, and it could be that Coveney is over-hyping a potential deal, without understanding its limitations and constraints.

More likely, this is a counsel of desperation as the Commission is disturbed by the UK's failure to start building the infrastructure for physical checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, despite assurances from Michael Gove. There is also concern that a promise to give the EU access to UK customs data has not materialised.

Maroš Šefcovic, the EU's negotiator, complains that these are all things in the agreement that Gove pledged the government was working on. "But", he says, "we see no evidence that Frost is following through on them". Šefcovic, therefore, feels: "We are reaching the end of the road".

Nevertheless, there are high hopes for this week's UK/EU partnership council meeting. An Irish government source suggests that there would be "disappointment" if there wasn't some progress. "It cannot just be a stock-taking exercise", he says, although he concedes that there is not going to be the breakthrough people had hoped for.

Meanwhile Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, has been talking to The Sunday Times, informing the paper that he has told Šefcovic and Coveney that Britain had taken its unilateral action (on delaying the implementation of the protocol) because "if we hadn't done that, we would have empty shelves in a couple of weeks. That would have made the protocol completely untenable".

Lewis's view is that, "The protocol as it is currently working is not sustainable". As of 1 July, chilled meats from GB won't be able to move to Northern Ireland. Yet Sainsbury's has stores in Northern Ireland, they have no stores in the Republic, and yet the EU insist on this level of bureaucracy and checks for their products because they might end up in the Republic.

With full implementation of the protocol, Lewis says, 20 percent of all the checks done in the whole of Europe will be GB-NI if we are to implement in the way the EU wants. "That is not sustainable".

Coveney thinks there is an opportunity to make progress at the G7 summit in Britain, which rather puts Johnson on the spot. He, after all, is the man who agreed the protocol in the first place, and his intervention could again set the scene for further developments. But, if there is no progress, Johnson will be seen to have a direct personal responsibility for any failure.

For all that, there is not a great deal of interest in the UK for what is seen as an interminable and ultimately tedious progress. And while Šefcovic denies that the EU had been inflexible in the process, he complains that there has been very little coming back "apart from media commentary around how inflexible and unreasonable the EU are".

This suggests that Johnson's aides – doubtless with the approval of Frost – is carrying out a briefing war, possibly in the hope that the Commission can be induced to make concessions rather than endure the constant refrain of hostile media commentary.

Even now, though, the UK is continuing to play games proposing to phase in new checks, which have already been unilaterally delayed. Under the new plan, they would be phased in in four stages from October, with meat products first in line.

From 1 February, checks would be extended to cover dairy products, garden centre plants, seeds and wine. A third phase would then cover fruit and vegetables and pet food, and phase four would cover other foods such as highly perishable items. But there would be no set timeline for the third and fourth phases, which would be dependent on the success of the first two.

This can barely be tolerable for the Commission, which might explain Coveney's intervention. But since his ideas verge on the unrealistic – and have already been rejected by the EU – it is difficult to see where this is going.

And, in the background, is the prospect of legal action by the Commission. Last week, very much past the deadline set by the Commission, the UK responded to the EU's letter of formal notice, sent back sent in March. Despite the delay, the Commission says it will "assess the contents of the reply before deciding on next steps".

In a pointed statement, a Commission spokesperson said last week, "I would recall that the EU and UK agreed just over a year ago after extensive negotiations, I would add, with prime minister Boris Johnson and David Frost, that the protocol is the best way to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland".

Although the EU is still expecting the UK to uphold its political commitments, this is water off a duck's back for Johnson. The meetings of this week will come and go, with minimal publicity from a media obsessed with summer holidays. For the moment, the EU is still prepared to table "flexible" solutions to some of the problems at next week's meeting. However, it is not seeing any evidence that the UK is willing to compromise. Thus, as the preferred "joint solutions" look ever more remote, there must come a time when the EU decides on unilateral action of its own. The time for that, though, is not just yet.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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