ERG members in December 2019

European Research Group demand NI Protocol is scrapped

The ERG join the Protocol fight, but will No.10 change tack?

The European Research Group have released a paper today calling for the Northern Ireland Protocol to be replaced.

Titled “Re-uniting the Kingdom: How and why to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol” the ERG have urged the Government to notify Brussels that it intends to deal with the “trade diversion and societal pressures” caused by the agreement before passing legislation reestablishing the links between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

After this has been achieved, Conservative eurosceptics believe a system of “mutual enforcement” would end the need for checks on goods moving inside the UK whilst keeping an open border on the island of Ireland. In this system, both the UK and the EU would agree to enforce each other’s import rules, meaning UK officials would check Northern Ireland businesses exporting to the EU and vice versa.

Today’s demand represents a hardening position of the influential ERG, following the DUP’s shift in position along with other unionist parties now planning legal action to get it removed. Yesterday DUP leader Arlene Foster sat in on a joint EU-UK Committee meeting which she said was “offensive to the very core principles of the United Kingdom”. The EU’s Maros Sefcovic reportedly told the British side that the solution to trade problems was for companies in Northern Ireland to source their goods from within the European Union.

But will No.10 listen to any of this? The ERG say that when the EU briefly triggered Article 16 of the NI Protocol to stop vaccines getting to Britain it “created a unique political opportunity for the UK Government” with which to replace the agreement, and they cite numerous examples of how the Protocol has damaged trade across the UK. In a recent parliamentary debate on the issue, ERG Chairman Mark Francois said that when they voted through the EU Withdrawal Agreement in January 2020 they “made it very plain to No 10 at the time” that the Protocol “would have to be amended or even replaced entirely, at a future date”. Much, of course, as the vague language of the Protocol itself promises its own supersession.

It’s hard to get away from the feeling that the Government doesn’t have the appetite to change anything

However, so far the Government has shown no sign of wanting to reverse their decision to create, and enforce, an intra-UK border. Just this week they agreed to the EU’s request to extend the time needed to ratify the Brexit trade deal without securing any concessions on the Protocol, a fact which enraged the DUP and caused anger in the ERG. Former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said it was “hard to understand”  and “a missed opportunity to press the EU again on taking a more reasonable approach to the Protocol.” whilst the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said the failure to capitalise on the request meant that the British Government was “the biggest bunch of suckers they’ve ever dealt with”.

There are so many examples of how the Protocol has negatively affected businesses. It is ruining the supply chains of supermarkets, threatens to end a centuries-old sheep-farming trade and is preventing farmers from buying tractors with muddy tyres. The ERG accuse the EU of using the Protocol to steal business from Britain, as the Northern Ireland economy is forced to reorientate itself towards the Republic of Ireland and the EU. The ERG paper says that if the Protocol is scrapped, the EU could retaliate by restricting trade with Britain but that under the agreement it would have to be proportionate. They also point out that the EU have pledged not to consider building a customs border on the island of Ireland so it would be unlikely they would retaliate in that way. But it’s hard to get away from the feeling that the Government doesn’t have the appetite to change anything. Except for agreeing that they would never rule out triggering Article 16 (which politically they have to say), not once has a UK Minister said publicly that they plan to make alterations to the Protocol which even hint at going outside of the EU-UK Joint Committee process. When the Northern Ireland Office talk to business lobby groups about their concerns they make sure Protocol-sceptics aren’t invited.

Is this the behaviour of a Government looking for options? It may be obvious to many that the NIP is doing serious damage to the Union but it doesn’t naturally flow that the Government is going to lift a finger to do anything about it.

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