Richard North, 27/07/2021  

Whatever could be in terms of a resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, it is also evident that nothing rational is going to come from the present cast of actors.

As it stands, the dispute took another giant step to nowhere yesterday, when the Commission issued a statement laying out "practical solutions for medicines supply in Northern Ireland in the framework of the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland, and for sanitary and phytosanitary measures".

This also marked the publication of a non-paper, a proposal aimed at sorting a glitch in the supply of certain medicines to Northern Ireland.

Maroš Šefcovic describes "these solutions" as having "an unambiguous common denominator". They were, he says, "brought about with the core purpose of benefitting the people in Northern Ireland". The solution on medicines, he adds, involves the EU changing its own rules, within the framework of the Protocol.

This concession, apparently, allows for "regulatory compliance functions for medicines supplied to the Northern Ireland market only" to be permanently located in Great Britain - subject to specific conditions ensuring that the medicines concerned are not further distributed in the EU Internal Market.

The medicines concerned here, Šefcovic explains, are primarily generic and over-the-counter products. The solution, he argues, demonstrates the Commission's commitment to the people in Northern Ireland and to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, with a legislative proposal expected in the early autumn in order to be able to finish the legislative process on time.

However. this has had little impact in London. As a UK government spokesman sniffily remarked that the proposal "remains the same as the one [the EU] sent to us in late June" and does not address outstanding "issues and concerns".

While the spokesman then trotted out the usual extruded verbal material, declaring that the two sides needed "comprehensive and durable solutions", the recently ennobled David Frost said that, without a major change to the legal text of the Protocol, the government will consider triggering Article 16.

This seems to represent a step change in Frost's stance. Earlier, he was reported as restraining Johnson from using this "nuclear option", even though he believed the conditions for using it had been met.

Nevertheless, it was made very clear to Dublin that Article 16 was on the cards, with UK officials making clear that it was Johnson, rather than Frost, who was most in favour of triggering the Article. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, was also known to have relayed similar messages to Simon Coveney, Ireland's foreign affairs minister, and Johnson himself has had a telephone discussion with Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

With all that, in the context of the UK's Command Paper, it must have been clear to the Commission that, if it had wanted to resolve this issue, its current proposals were not going to do the job. If this is the Commission's final offer, the two sides are on a collision course, where triggering Article 16 now seems inevitable.

If the Commission sees this as an extreme response, it may be because they do not fully appreciate how the political climate in London is influencing matters. Specifically, the Muppet tendency in the Tory party is agitating for the Protocol to be scrapped in its entirety, even at the cost of ditching the entire Brexit agreement, including the TCA.

From that perspective, Johnson must see himself as taking the middle course. On the one hand, he is responding to the extremists in his own party and the DUP leader, who are making their positions increasingly clear.

On the other, he is trying to address the concerns of traders who are having to deal with the realities of cross-border trade, in the context where Johnson gave them the assurance that there would be border checks or additional "red tape".

There is also the view being expressed that Johnson never intended to implement the Protocol and simply intended his "oven ready deal" as a placeholder to get Brexit over the line. And if that is the case, no amount of concessions short of a fundamental renegotiation are going to satisfy the Johnson administration.

The lukewarm response of the Commission, though, could simply be that – to put it at its most elemental – nobody in the EU (Member States or Commission) cares enough to head off the confrontation. Doubtless, they are content to let the procedures take their course, in the expectation that the eventual arbitration (if it happens) will rule it its favour.

And yet, both the Commission and the Member States should by now have some inkling of the irrationality that dominates Conservative Party politics, and the streak of nihilism which verges on self-immolation. There are Tory MPs who would, in the manner of Samson, bring down the temple on themselves, in the pursuit of their Brexit ideology.

In terms of rationality – or the lack of it – one is reminded of the input of Michael Gove on the Single Market prior to the EU referendum. In April 2016, he used a speech to set out "his vision" of what the country would look like in the event of a "leave" vote, declaring that the UK would be part of the European free trade zone with access to the Single Market but "free from EU regulation which costs us billions of pounds a year". This commentary days it all.

But then, in May of the same year, just weeks before the referendum, was reported in the FT saying that the UK would quit the Single Market if the country voted to leave the EU, saying that he wanted the UK to be "outside the single market but have access to it". Full access would include paying into the EU budget, implementing Brussels' regulations and accepting free-movement of people.

This came from a bizarre interview on the Marr Show where Gove actually claimed that the Commission defined membership of the Single Market as membership of Schengen and membership of the single currency. Thus, he asserted, the Commission had it that full membership of the Single Market required you to be in the single currency.

Gove's therefore confirmed that he wanted to be outside the single market. But he also wanted to have his cake and eat it. "We should have access to the single market, but we should not be governed by the rules that the European Court of Justice imposes on us, which cost business and restrict freedom", he said.

When Marr put to him that he was saying that "we would be able to be inside – have the effect of the single market without paying any money in and without accepting free movement of people", Gove responded: "I think the British people want to vote for a deal which you describe as all the advantages and none of the pay-outs".

This represented the thinking at the highest level of the Conservative Party, where "cakeism" became a dominant theme, and still drives much of the dialogue in the Party. And with the discourse stuck at that level, combined with the tin-ear politics of the Commission, it is hardly surprising that this issue is heading towards a collision.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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