It was predictable – and it was predicted – that Brexit would not be a “clean break” with the European Union, and that leaving would merely be the start of never-ending negotiations. So it has proved, with the talks to resolve differences over the Northern Ireland protocol now complicated by a simultaneous dispute over fishing rights in the Channel.
Over the weekend Boris Johnson and David Frost, his Brexit negotiator, warned the French that they would launch dispute settlement proceedings under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement if they carry out threats to our fishing industry and energy supplies.
Meanwhile, last week’s official update on the talks about the Northern Ireland protocol had a familiar feel: “The week’s talks have been conducted in a constructive spirit. While there is some overlap between our positions on a subset of the issues, the gaps between us remain substantial.”
The biggest remaining gap, now that the EU side has tabled proposals to take a more relaxed view of goods traffic going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, is the British demand to rewrite the protocol to remove any role for the European Court – a role to which Mr Johnson and Mr Frost agreed when they signed the withdrawal agreement just two years ago.
The British side implies, but does not state explicitly, that this change is needed to ensure that the protocol has the support of the Northern Ireland assembly under the consent mechanism that requires a vote in 2024. The protocol is unpopular with some unionists, and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has demanded that it be scrapped.
However, a Lucid Talk poll last week found that 52 per cent of Northern Irish residents think the protocol is “a good thing for Northern Ireland”; 41 per cent disagree. Asked about the British government’s threat to suspend the protocol under its article 16, which allows either the UK or the EU to put it on hold if it leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”, 53 per cent are opposed, while 39 per cent say invoking article 16 would be justified.
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