David Frost (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The problem with Frost’s speech

Despite all the evidence, the UK assumes that the EU is acting in good faith

When the Northern Ireland Protocol was introduced at the start of this year, it was quickly exposed as an unworkable farce, designed to punish Britain for Brexit. Even as its vindictive terms stripped the province’s shelves of goods and threatened its supply of medicines, Brussels kept repeating the mantra, “there will be no renegotiation”.

Yet, as Eurocrats gutted Lord Frost’s Lisbon speech on reforming the Protocol last night, and officials at Westminster waited to examine the detail of Maros Sefcovic’s counter-proposals, one thing was plainly obvious: the UK and the EU are already renegotiating. 

The government now has an opportunity to right a wrong that it inflicted on part of its own national territory and effectively restore Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom. If it keeps its nerve. 

All kinds of things that the EU once insisted it could never contemplate have happened or are cited by Brussels as potential “mitigations” for the Protocol. The UK was berated as a “rogue state” for unilaterally extending “grace periods” so that a supply of food could be maintained in Northern Ireland. That dispensation was eventually accepted as semi-permanent. Now, the EU is touting technological solutions, of the type that it used to dismiss as “unicorn hunting” or “magical thinking”, as a way of allowing seamless trade between Great Britain and Ulster. 

The government still seems to assume that the EU and the ROI are motivated by pragmatism

Lord Frost says he will examine Brussels’ proposals carefully, but the European Commission cannot have judicial authority over the province’s economy. Unionists in Northern Ireland were encouraged by his speech because it stressed the constitutional difficulties that the Protocol raises, rather than focussing only on its practical effects. The fact that the UK has been asked to, “run a full scale external border of the EU through the centre of our country”, as Frost put it, creates huge difficulties for businesses and consumers, but, more significantly, it compromises the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and dismantles the Act of Union.

Many people in Northern Ireland will welcome the idea of a “green channel” for British goods destined for the province, which the EU is apparently considering as a way to cut checks and paperwork. Indeed, unionist politicians proposed similar arrangements and were dismissed with Brussels’ customary disdain. But its proposals will be unacceptable to pro-Union people if the EU still intends to retain authority over Northern Ireland’s economy and dilute British sovereignty in the province.

In his speech, Frost accurately diagnosed many of the constitutional problems raised by the Protocol. It requires Britain to, “apply EU law without consent [in Northern Ireland], and to have any dispute on these arrangements settled in the court of one of the parties (i.e. the European Court of Justice).” The free circulation of goods within national boundaries, he said, is “something that every other country in the world takes for granted”. Critically, he reminded Brussels, “It is this government that governs Northern Ireland as it does the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is not EU territory. It is our responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity… and that may include using Article 16 if necessary.”

These were all indisputable points, marshalled skilfully to support the argument that the Protocol is “the biggest source of mistrust” between the EU and the UK and “we need to fix it”. Despite its reasonable tenor, the speech was greeted with predictable hostility by many Europhiles and Irish nationalists. The silliest retort may have come from Dublin’s former ambassador to the UK, Bobby McDonagh, who shrieked on Twitter, “It’s beyond time for all decent British people… to disassociate themselves from David Frost’s behaviour.”

The overall response, though, hints at a potential problem with the government’s approach. It still seems to assume that, at the bottom of everything, the EU and the Republic of Ireland are motivated by pragmatism, a desire for partnership and a shared sense of responsibility for maintaining the Belfast Agreement. This assumption ignores years of evidence that, at least as strong, are the impulses to punish Britain for Brexit and diminish the UK’s authority over Northern Ireland. Dublin and Brussels are cheered on in this project by Europhile liberals, like Ulster’s Alliance Party, who wish to retain as much EU in the province as possible, even if that damages its links to Great Britain and compromises its economy. In other words, the UK’s opponents in this matter are driven by ideology.

If the government renegotiates the Protocol in a way that restores Northern Ireland’s full access to the British internal market and its integral place in the UK, of course it will deserve praise for its perseverance. Let’s not forget, though, that all the problems that this document caused were foreseen and yet Boris Johnson and the Conservatives signed and supported it. If the EU has any right on its side, it’s that the consequences of the Protocol, as appalling as they are, were spelt out in the text, even if many people wanted to ignore them.

They need to get this right now, rather than doing half a job

And the government has already had ample opportunity to dump the Protocol during its first turbulent year. Frost has threatened for months now to trigger its emergency brake, Article 16, with a view to suspending its most onerous provisions. Yet, even now, though he proposes a major revamp, he still speaks in terms of “fixing” the Protocol, rather than dismantling it completely. Ministers are reluctant to act unilaterally and, if they ever do, it will have been a tortuously drawn-out decision.

At the same time, the EU is now prepared to discuss significant changes to the Irish Sea border. This is a clear sign that the UK was right to insist that it was not working properly. When Emmanuel Macron tried to rally the member states in defiance against Britain, on the pretext of protecting French fishermen, the reaction was decidedly unenthusiastic.

The Protocol is undoubtedly a disgrace and a disaster, inflicted on part of the world whose place in the United Kingdom was secured in the face of murder and terror. There is now an opportunity, that may not be repeated, to neutralise this assault on the Union and put our relationship with the EU on a stable footing. If that is to be the outcome, it will require firmness and a steady nerve from Boris Johnson and Lord Frost. 

They need to get this right now, rather than doing half a job, and leaving problems with the Protocol that will emerge again later.

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