EU balks at UK’s demand to rewrite Northern Ireland Protocol

The European Commission has firmly stated that it will not renegotiate the Protocol, which is a key element of the Brexit deal concluded between the EU and the UK.
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By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

22 Jul 2021

The EU has rejected the UK’s demand to make “significant changes” to the Northern Ireland Protocol, saying that while it will continue to seek “creative solutions” within the Protocol, it will not agree to its renegotiation.

European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said in a statement on Wednesday that the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is the joint solution that the EU found with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UK chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, and which was ratified by the UK Parliament, “to address the unique challenges that Brexit, and the type of Brexit chosen by the British government, poses for the island of Ireland.”

Šefčovič said that the Protocol’s aim is to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, maintain peace and stability in Northern Ireland, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, while preserving the integrity of the EU Single Market.

He added, “in order for these objectives to be achieved, the Protocol must be implemented. Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance.”

On Thursday afternoon, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that Boris Johnson had called her to present the UK's so-called 'Command Paper' on the Irish/Northern Irish Protocol.

She said simply, “The EU will continue to be creative and flexible within the Protocol framework. But we will not renegotiate. We must jointly ensure stability and predictability in Northern Ireland.”

The UK, for its part, says that the Northern Ireland Protocol is “failing to deliver on what it set out to achieve” and, as such, “significant changes” must be made to the existing Protocol.

“Just because it is now obvious that Brexit is not for free, agreements cannot simply be called into question or renegotiated according to the ideas of one side. An agreement is not just wishful thinking. What kind of understanding of compliance is that? Shameful” Bernd Lange, chair of International Trade Committee

In a document entitled “Northern Ireland Protocol: the way forward”, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson says that the agreed arrangements in the Protocol “represented a huge compromise by the UK.”

He said, “Nevertheless, having reached a difficult compromise on the final text of the Protocol, we expected both sides to recognise the need to apply and administer it in a way that took account of the unique context of Northern Ireland, as the Protocol itself requires.”

He says that this was vital not only for trade and economic reasons, but also because of the sensitive issues around politics and national identity, adding, “We as a Government have been trying to do just that. But it has already become clear that it is not possible to operate these arrangements in a way that can be sustained, particularly not in the inflexible way the EU seems to want.”

Reacting to the news, EU policymakers expressed dismay at the UK’s U-turn on the Protocol, pointing out the painstaking months of intense negotiations as the two sides thrashed out a Brexit deal.

German EPP member David McAllister, who was chair of the European Parliament's UK Coordination Group (UKCG), said that instead of calling the Protocol into question, solutions should be found for the outstanding issues.

He said, “The implementation of the Protocol relies on joint action. It should not be undermined by unilateral measures. Permanent flexibilities are not acceptable.”

“The Protocol was painstakingly negotiated under high political pressure, ensuring to minimise disruption and to help local communities and businesses. It cannot be renegotiated - it is part of the solution to a problem and that is Brexit.”

“The EU will continue to be creative and flexible within the Protocol framework. But we will not renegotiate. We must jointly ensure stability and predictability in Northern Ireland” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President

S&D MEP Bernd Lange, chair of Parliament's International Trade Committee and also a UKCG member, described the UK’s Command Paper on the Northern Ireland Protocol as “unacceptable, but unfortunately, to be expected.”

He explained that the UK’s latest move “fits into the usual pattern: if they don’t get what they want, threats or unilateral action follow instead of working constructively on implementation in the bodies set out in the treaty.”

He said, “Just because it is now obvious that Brexit is not for free, agreements cannot simply be called into question or renegotiated according to the ideas of one side. An agreement is not just wishful thinking. What kind of understanding of compliance is that? Shameful.”

Irish EPP member Seán Kelly, lead MEP for UK trade matters in Parliament, and chair of the UK Monitoring Group, said that the publication of the UK's Command Paper on the Northern Ireland Protocol regrettably marked “yet another step in the erosion of this UK government's credibility.”

Kelly said that the Protocol is the agreed solution to the problems caused by Brexit for the island of Ireland, safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protecting Ireland’s place in the Single Market.

He explained, “It is important to reiterate that other, easier, alternatives were offered, but the Protocol as we know it now was the path that was chosen and agreed. It does every citizen a disservice when political leaders undermine this agreement. That is not how treaties work, nor how positive relationships are built.”

German Greens/EFA member Anna Cavazzini, chair of Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, said, “The Johnson administration is haphazard and populist. The Northern Ireland Protocol was signed by the UK, knowing fully what the consequences would be. The protocol is the basis of the trade agreement, which [David] Frost seems to be forgetting.”

“You couldn’t make it up. This is the ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal that he [Johnson] negotiated and pushed through Parliament with no time for reading or discussion. Now he doesn’t like it? He’s taking the EU and the British voters for fools” Catherine Bearder, Former UK Renew Europe MEP

Fellow Greens/EFA MEP Terry Reintke said, “Let’s just be absolutely clear about one thing: Brexit is a mess, a mess and a mess. Every move the UK government is making right now simply proves this point.”

This sentiment was echoed by several former UK MEPs, including former S&D member Seb Dance, who said, “If the UK government thought its rejection of the treaty it signed only months ago would be met with a shrug, they’re very much mistaken. Tariff-free UK-EU trade is now very much at risk. This would have incredibly serious political and economic consequences.”

Fellow former S&D deputy Richard Corbett commented that the UK government, which spent three years negotiating every detail of the Northern Ireland Protocol - a part of the Brexit agreement they described as “oven-ready” - now wants to renege on it.

“No wonder our neighbours no longer trust Britain,” he added.

Former Renew Europe MEP Catherine Bearder said, “You couldn’t make it up. This is the ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal that he [Johnson] negotiated and pushed through Parliament with no time for reading or discussion. Now he doesn’t like it?  He’s taking the EU and the British voters for fools.”

SNP MP and former Greens/EFA member Alyn Smith described the move as “a deeply, deeply silly thing the UK is trying to do.”

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