David Frost, the Brexit minister, published the government’s plan for the future of the Northern Ireland protocol on Wednesday.
Loyalists protest against the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol at Belfast Harbour Estate
Mr Frost issued a new “command paper” that would radically rework the Northern Ireland protocol, a deal he himself negotiated and which only came into force in January, effectively removing most of a trade border created in the Irish Sea.
But the proposal was swiftly rejected by the EU. “We will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol,” said Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president, in an official statement.
I think the key paragraph is number 77: “To provide space for these discussions, the government believes it is vital to provide certainty and stability for businesses in Northern Ireland in the short term. Accordingly, we believe we and the EU should agree a ‘standstill’ on existing arrangements, including the operation of grace periods in force, and a freeze on existing legal actions and processes, to ensure there is room to negotiate without further cliff edges, and to provide a genuine signal of good intent to find ways forward.”
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So, for all the talk of “renegotiating” or even “tearing up” the protocol, the only specific proposal at this stage is to freeze things as they are to allow talks to take place. The EU has already rejected the idea, saying that its interpretation of the protocol requires new restrictions on goods going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to be imposed from 1 October.
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In my view, the UK government’s position is a reasonable one, and the EU is being inflexible – suggesting that sausages to Belfast supermarkets undermine the integrity of the EU single market. But I hope these are the opening negotiating positions and that good sense will prevail.
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