Richard North, 20/07/2021  

With so much going on, even at the cusp of the silly season, it is easy to forget Brexit. But, in view of the dreary predictability of the dominant theme, amnesia is perhaps a desirable state.

Nevertheless, it appears, even single-minded determination to block out the tedium isn't quite sufficient to remove the recently ennobled David Frost from public consciousness, especially when the MPs of the European Scrutiny Committee have been rash enough to ask him to speak to them – which he did yesterday.

The reason for Frost's appearance, we are told was to preview the government’s proposed changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which will be explained in a statement to parliament tomorrow, alongside the release of a new policy paper.

Yesterday, he told the MPs that the Protocol – which he had personally negotiated – was contradictory and it was a "matter for debate", what key parts of the agreement actually meant. He also claimed that the EU was already "arguably" letting the UK breach parts of the deal.

"One of the difficulties with the Protocol", he said, "is that it's quite a purposive document, and a lot of its provisions have to be read with other provisions to sort of work out precisely what they mean".

One example, Frost offered, was "the contradiction between the provision saying the union customs code must apply, and the provision that says that you must do your best to reduce checks at Northern Ireland ports". In his view, the correct interpretation of those two things was "obviously a matter for debate".

On that basis, he thinks the issue is certainly "arguable", in particular the way the EU is allowing us to run some of these arrangements which are "not consistent or only partly consistent with that sort of balance".

Thus, despite Frost having delivered an "oven ready deal" that Johnson was to use as his platform for the 2019 election – later describing it as a "fantastic" deal, reality has taken its toll and the good and faithful servant is seeking major changes – or else.

That much comes from Reuters, which has it that Britain is preparing to threaten to deviate from the Protocol, unless the EU shows "more flexibility" over its implementation.

Thus, the statement to parliament tomorrow is to include "a significant potential change" to the Protocol that could have "far-reaching consequences for the relationship with the EU".

Frost is adamant that the Protocol is not sustainable in its current form and that if an agreement could not be reached then London would consider all options, including unilateral action through Article 16 (safeguard provisions). "All options are on the table", he says.

Yet, for all that, Frost does not seem clear as to whether a fundamental rebalancing of the protocol is possible. According to Reuters, Brussels expects Frost to push for a deviation (whatever that means), unless he is offered a compromise.

There are, however, shades of a rock meeting a hard place. A senior EU official, speaking anonymously to Reuters (as they always do), has said: "We will not agree to the reopening of the Irish protocol".

This, in turn, simply reiterates the formal EU position, as articulated recently by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during a visit to Dublin.

Denying even that the Protocol is a problem, she said "The Protocol is the solution to the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland", adding: "It's certainly not the problem but it is the solution". She then went on to say: "It is the only solution to protect peace and stability on the island of Ireland and to protect the integrity of the single market".

If one takes it that the free flow of cross-border activity is essential to the peace process, then von der Leyen is right, for the Protocol is the only option on the table which can achieve this and, at the same time, protect the all-important integrity of the single market.

This, of course, has not stopped DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, calling for a renegotiation of the Protocol, claiming that "even those who supported the protocol's rigorous implementation" have recognised that it had not worked.

"The barriers and distortion to trade within the UK internal market brought about by it must be swept away and not replaced," he says, noting that his party has "pressed the UK government to that end". He too is saying that, if the EU is "unwilling to recognise the harm caused by the protocol" then the UK government "must take appropriate unilateral action using Article 16".

"Subjecting Northern Ireland to laws and regulations upon which its representatives and Westminster have no say can never work and does not have the support of both communities", Donaldson adds.

Ranged on the other side though, is US president Biden, with his administration still insisting that London respects the deal.

However, the crunch point is about to come as the supermarkets warn that the costs entailed with implementing the Protocol could "force" retailers to switch from British suppliers to EU suppliers.

Representatives from Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Co-op, Iceland and Marks and Spencer have sent a joint letter to the UK government and the European Commission to highlight their concerns.

Together, the six retailers represent more than 75 percent of Northern Ireland's grocery market, according to the British Retail Consortium. It co-ordinated the letter, which appeals for action to prevent disruption to trade, so UK supermarkets can "continue to provide the people of Northern Ireland with choice and affordability".

One outcome of this, though, must surely be that additional goods will be sourced from Northern Ireland, rather than imported from mainland Britain, to the advantage of the province. Whether this might influence the DUP remains to be seen, although that is probably unlikely.

Inevitably, therefore, the UK government seems to be on a collision course with Brussels, which cannot end well for either party. Fundamentally, if the UK is not prepared to honour the "wet" border procedures, then the EU will eventually have no option but to demand that the Republic imposes hard controls on the land border.

The chances are though, that this might be later rather than sooner. One gets the impression that the Commission is playing a long game, feeding the Johnson administration a lengthy piece of rope with which it might eventually hang itself. With the Biden "ace" up its sleeve, the Commission can also apply an amount of leverage, if Johnson is to have any hope of doing a trade deal with the United States.

Sadly, therefore, there is little prospect of the tedium abating any time soon. It looks as if we are going to be living with this for many months to come, with no resolution in sight.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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