UK agreed last year EU could set up office in Belfast but backtracked

Government now rejecting EU oversight of implementing Northern Ireland agreement

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 02 May 2020 15:26 BST
The office would monitor the implementation of the protocal
The office would monitor the implementation of the protocal

The British government agreed last year to the EU setting up an office in Northern Ireland, before changing its mind and acting like it had never done so, it has emerged.

The revelation is the latest twist in a row over whether there should be a European Commission presence in Belfast after the Brexit transition period ends.

The EU says it needs an office in the city to help monitor the UK's implementation of the withdrawal agreement – under which Boris Johnson agreed to impose unprecedented customs checks on trade between different parts of the UK.

But the UK government says an office is not necessary and "would in our view be divisive in political and community terms”, according to a letter from minister Penny Mordaunt. The position is fuelling concerns in Brussels that the UK may not be serious about following through on the Irish agreement.

But now a letter seen by Irish public broadcaster RTÉ shows that the UK government agreed in writing to an EU office in the city on 11 February 2019.

“The UK government supports the continued presence of EU offices in Edinburgh and Cardiff, alongside London and Belfast, given the longstanding relationship the EU has with all devolved nations," the letter from Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office said.

RTÉ says the UK government has been claiming behind the scenes the idea had not been discussed, in order to justify its rejection.

The letter was sent while Theresa May was prime minister, after her version of the withdrawal agreement was agreed but before it was rejected by MPs for the first time on 15 February.

As such EU oversight of customs procedures on the Irish sea would not have been discussed as part of the office's remit, because such controls were not included in the agreement on the table. However, the letter does show that there was written agreement in principle to a Commission presence in the city.

Sir Simon is the top civil servant at the FCO and remains in post under Boris Johnson – in fact he also wrote to the European Commission on 12 February 2020 to reject the establishment of an EU office.

The revelation is significant because it illustrates collapsing trust between the UK and EU over whether Boris Johnson will actually implement what was agreed with the EU in January on Northern Ireland.

The question of where the customs border would be was a major sticking point during talks, and Mr Johnson only managed to get a Brexit deal by capitulating on the question of checks with the rest of the UK, which Theresa May had previously said "no UK prime minister" could accept.

On Friday the EU said "urgent" actions were needed by the UK to make sure it would be standing by its part of the deal, including the "immediate" construction of the promised customs posts on goods within the UK.

The EU wanted the office to be up and running by summer 2020 so it could have time to recruit staff and prepare to monitor the new system.

Several episodes during the general election where Mr Johnson falsely claimed that he had not signed up to border checks on the Irish sea also privately worried some officials in Brussels – though he was given the benefit of the doubt because of the campaign period.

A failure by the UK to implement the withdrawal agreement's Ireland protocol would likely cause the collapse in trade negotiations and see Britain crash out of the transition period at the end of the year without a trade deal.

Asked about the letters showing the UK had agreed to an office, a government spokesperson told The Independent: "The government's position is that there’s no reason why the Commission should require a permanent presence in Belfast to monitor the implementation of the protocol."

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