David Frost arrives for a meeting with European Commission's head of Task Force for Relations with Britain in Brussels on November 16, 2020. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

Will the UK ever use its leverage against the EU?

Brussels asks Britain for an extension whilst rigorously implementing the NI Protocol

The UK has just granted an EU request to keep applying the EU-UK trade deal until April 30 so the EU can complete ratification. A government spokesman said it was “disappointing the EU hasn’t completed its internal processes in the agreed timeframe” but agreed to the request anyway. However, the UK’s decision has angered some Brexiteers who are wondering why the UK Government seemingly continues to throw away its leverage.

They are especially aggrieved that the concession was swiftly granted despite the fact that the EU is insisting on a maximum application of the Northern Ireland protocol. The grace period on meats was not extended by the EU, meaning health certificates on sausages and mince meat were required from Monday in order to send them to Northern Ireland from the mainland. And under the rules it’s not possible to sell tractors to Northern Ireland from Great Britain if there is soil on the tyres.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said it was “hard to understand why the Government didn’t extract more concessions in exchange for giving the EU extra time for ratification. In relation to the NIP, the EU is refusing us flexibilities which could tackle many current problems and still be in line with their rules. This is a missed opportunity to press the EU again on taking a more reasonable approach to the Protocol.”

The Vice Chairman of the ERG, David Jones said:

Given that the EU has always said that its priority is to give certainty to businesses and citizens, it is surprising and disappointing that it is unable, apparently because of bureaucracy, to comply with its treaty obligations in terms of ratification. The government should make it clear that there will be no further extensions. We don’t want a re-run of CETA, when Canada and the rest of the EU had to wait for the Wallonian parliament to decide whether it approved the deal.

If the roles were reversed, would the EU not have tried to get something in return? It seems implausible that they wouldn’t so it’s curious that the Government is being this accommodating. Some MPs, like Andrew Bridgen, have great faith in the new Cabinet Minister in charge of EU relations, Lord Frost. Mr Bridgen concedes that the ratification delay is “a card we could have played but didn’t” but instead suggests a bolder approach that the former Brexit negotiator should take: trading the UK’s spare vaccines for concessions on the protocol. Despite the fact that the EU Commission has shown it is willing to scrap part of the protocol to stop vaccines getting into the UK, the Government is unlikely to use its vaccine advantage in the same way.

Privately some senior ERG members believe it may take as long as a year to see the Protocol junked

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson however, thinks his legal action might be the solution. Unionists are arguing that the EU-UK agreement undermines the Act of Union and the Belfast agreement and are planning to take the Government to court over the suggested breach. Not least of the Unionists’ concerns touches on the arbitrary Whitehall decision to drop Stormont’s usual cross-community consent provisions the planned Assembly vote on whether to stay subject to the NIP. This government thumb on the scales knowingly ensures that the pro-Protocol side will win. And once again is an odd thing for a government which purports to dislike the EU’s implementation of the NIP to be doing. Though as ConHome’s Henry Hill points out over at UnHerd, both Unionists and Brexiteers should be wary of courts being able to poke their noses into constitutional politics like this.

Sammy Wilson said:

The EU turn away our fish and we still give them licenses for their boats, they impose restrictions on the City of London, insist on the most petty application of the NI Protocol and we say we’ll talk to them nicely. And now they are asking to postpone the ratification process and we agree. The EU must think the British Government are the biggest bunch of suckers they’ve ever dealt with.

Privately some senior ERG members believe it may take as long as a year to see the Protocol junked, but think that logic dictates that the increasingly difficult structural barriers to trade and the anger felt by businesses mean something will inevitably have to give. Should the NIP turn out to be as unworkable as some Brexiteers hope, it remains to be seen whether the ministers who will then responsible for dealing with this mess will actually want to do anything about it. Michael Gove has happily waved goodbye this week to formal day to day responsibility for his Protocol. While the current Northern Ireland Secretary is happy to deny incontestable facts whenever they’re politically inconvenient. A lot of whistling and hoping is being done about the NIP, but as yet nothing changes.

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