The British government has sought to play down the significance of planned legislation affecting the Northern Ireland protocol, insisting that it remains committed to implementing the Brexit withdrawal agreement in full.
A bill to be published on Wednesday will include provisions to circumscribe the protocol’s influence on Britain’s state aid policy and will make clear that goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain will not have to be accompanied by an export declaration. A finance bill in the coming weeks will say that British ministers will decide which goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are deemed “at risk” of proceeding into the EU’s single market.
Downing Street said cabinet office minister Michael Gove would continue to negotiate the details of implementing the protocol in a joint committee with European Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic. But Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the government was legislating to ensure that there would be no “inadvertent consequences” if all the details were not agreed by the end of the year.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed as a way of implementing the needs of our exit from the EU in a way that worked for Northern Ireland and in particular for maintaining the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the gains of the Peace Process, and the delicate balance between both communities’ interests.
“It explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence. As we implement the Northern Ireland Protocol this overriding need must be kept in mind,” the spokesman said.
“So we are taking limited and reasonable steps to clarify specific elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol in domestic law to remove any ambiguity and to ensure the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland. These limited clarifications deliver on the commitments the Government made in the General Election manifesto, which said ‘We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK and that in the implementation of our Brexit deal, we maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.’ This was reiterated in the command paper published in May.”
Checks on goods
The British government’s command paper on the protocol ruled out obliging Northern Irish businesses to complete export declarations for goods moving to Great Britain and Mr Johnson has repeatedly asserted that there would be no checks on goods moving in the opposite direction. The British government now acknowledges that checks will be required on good moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland but the new legislation will state that it will be for a British minister to determine which goods fall into the category requiring checks.
Under Article 10 of the protocol, Britain will have to notify the EU on state aid decisions “in respect of measures which affect that trade between Northern Ireland and the Union”.
Trade experts say the commitment is so broad that EU state aid rules could apply to subsidies to British businesses that are not based in Northern Ireland and to UK-wide measures such as the coronavirus furlough scheme.
But the new legislation will state that EU state aid rules will continue to apply to Northern Ireland only and make clear that they cannot be used to limit the British government’s action elsewhere in the UK.
Talks between Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier resume in London on Tuesday after Mr Johnson said that if no deal is agreed by the middle of October he will walk away from the talks. Downing Street insisted, however, that Britain’s commitment to the Northern Ireland protocol would persist regardless of the outcome of trade negotiation and that talks about its implementation were going well.
“The government is completely committed, as it always has been, to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in good faith. If we don’t take these steps we face the prospect of legal confusion at the end of the year and potentially extremely damaging defaults, including tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We are making minor clarifications in extremely specific areas to ensure that, as we implement the protocol, we are doing so in a way that allows ministers to always uphold and protect the Good Friday peace agreement,” a British government spokesman said.