I started by saying I thought that the UK government’s position is a reasonable one, and that the EU is being inflexible – suggesting, for example, that sending sausages to Belfast supermarkets undermines the integrity of the EU single market – but I hoped that these were the opening negotiating positions and that good sense will prevail.
This proved to be a controversial view that provoked debate, an edited version of which follows.
Alastair Meeks: What is reasonable about wanting to junk parts of an agreement you signed up to just a few months ago that your counterpart insisted upon as part of the price for securing that agreement? What is inflexible about insisting on the performance of freely agreed obligations?
John Rentoul: I think this to get things the wrong way round. The question is whether the protocol is succeeding in doing what it was intended to do. The answer to that is obviously no, so then the question is what to do about it. The EU opening bid is: “Nothing. Tough. You agreed to it. We will insist on the most restrictive interpretation of the rules.”
Fortunately I don’t believe this is the EU’s final position, and when they think they have punished Boris Johnson enough for what they see as his rudeness and arrogance I assume they will negotiate a pragmatic compromise.
Yeravinalarf: Do you believe the British negotiators were fully aware of an Irish Sea border causing difficulties for British mainland businesses to export to Northern Ireland? Did they anticipate that would result in more economic integration of the two Irelands?
JR: No, I don’t think they were fully aware of the likely difficulties; I think they assumed that the problems could be sorted out in the joint committee. That didn’t seem an outlandish assumption, but there is no doubt that the British negotiating stance has offended our EU friends unnecessarily, which means they have taken an inflexible approach.
Bigboz: You always come out with the sausages thing to make the EU look petty. It’s not about sausages, it’s about dodgy goods coming into Northern Ireland which means in practice being able to get into the EU. Brexitland will end up agreeing to dodgy imports, such as genetically modified food and chlorinated chicken, because it will have to, as China and America have the trading power. It will then become very difficult to keep that stuff from getting to the EU via Northern Ireland.
Also it’s about reneging on an international agreement. How can the EU lift the rules based on trusting Brexitland to stop dodgy goods getting through, considering they talk so easily about reneging on an agreement?
JR: OK, but why not deal with the sausages first?
Real European: The EU already offered a very flexible solution that allows for lifting 80 per cent of these border controls, namely with a Swiss style SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] agreement. Why doesn’t the UK agree with this? It would solve the entire problem with the stroke of a pen.
JR: The UK government’s position is that it won’t agree to an open-ended commitment to follow EU rules, but I am sure that such an agreement can be negotiated that would meet the concerns of both sides.
Frightening Prospect: The UK does not have a reasonable point re sausages. The UK used to be involved in the making of rules for third countries to abide by. The UK knew what third country status meant. Johnson’s government has cynically rushed the deal through thinking they could fudge it later. The only way forward is to agree to maintain EU standards. Johnson’s government has made a big deal of “we won’t lower standards” – if that’s the case, what is the problem?
JR: I don’t think it lowers EU standards to allow chilled meats to go from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for consumption there.
Frightening Prospect: It’s not about chilled meats. The UK is a third country. The rules apply. The UK knows and knew this. It was the most active in participation in rule-writing when it was around the EU table.
JR: That is, indeed, what I meant by “inflexible”.
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CillChaoi: In your final note at the end of the last Ask Me Anything on the Northern Ireland protocol, you remarked, not unkindly, that the pro-European views of so many of your questioners were stronger than yours. I think you’re right about that, for the most part, but in general the questioners were also pro-UK, since the Northern Ireland protocol is to avert a hardening of the long land border between the EU and the UK and that benefits both sides.
So, I think, although I’m not sure, that many who are likely to contribute today, while hostile probably to the UK government and to the Brexitering ruling classes, are likely to be pro-protocol, anti-hard border and hence both pro-EU and pro-UK.
JR: I hope so! The question is how to make the border arrangements work, and it is no use in the end saying, “Ah but you signed,” or “Ah but you wanted Brexit”. Given that we have left the EU, and given that the protocol is not achieving the objectives all parties agreed on, what to do? I think allowing chilled meats to go from the rest of the UK to Northern Irish supermarkets is a reasonable concession the EU could make that wouldn’t damage its single market.
Egoton: Don’t you agree that the UK does not even have the capabilities to enter in a trade war? To apply tariffs on goods, you have to have functioning ICT, hardware, infrastructure, and a lot of competent customs officers – the UK has nothing.
The EU on the other hand, did not waste the last five years, and has all the systems and protocols in place. It could effectively slap on tariffs in 24 hours. So, should the best solution for the government of the UK be to just implement the very treaty they agreed, signed and put into law, rather than trying to unlawfully wriggle out from under their own negotiated and signed agreement?
JR: No one wants a trade war, and I don’t think one is likely.
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Old Dane: The treaty was finished at the time due to urgent demands from the UK government. There are no surprises afterwards, everything was known at the time of the treaty. The UK government left Northern Ireland inside the single market, and the rules are well known, including which kinds of goods are allowed to enter and under which conditions. A nation is either in the single market, or outside; there are no other ways.
Sausages and similar food are not strategic goods or difficult to manufacture, and could easily be manufactured in Northern Ireland. It would benefit Northern Ireland to be more self-supplying, and even to export to other nations inside the single market and to Britain. Isn’t it about time Northern Ireland grew up to be a more sustainable society, less reliant on the rest of the UK?
JR: The EU should want to help deal with the problems that are becoming evident in the operation of the protocol. I agree it would be sensible if the UK government admitted it had got it wrong, although I think it comes close to it in paragraph 67 of the command paper which says: “The UK ... only agreed to it [the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice] in the protocol because of the very specific circumstances of that negotiation.” In other words: “We agreed to things we didn’t agree with in order to get the deal done.”
Real European: Could you please be so kind as to explain to us what the elusive unexpected consequences of the Northern Ireland protocol are, and why the government has changed its position, given that this newspaper wrote the following on 14 May last year?
“The government has admitted there will be checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea after the Brexit transition period – despite Boris Johnson’s promises there would be no such barriers. The UK government has written to Northern Ireland’s executive confirming that new physical infrastructure will be funded at a series of ports ...
“A Cabinet Office spokesperson claimed the UK government had always been clear there would be ‘requirements for live animals and agri-food’ at ports like Larne and Belfast. ‘We want to work with Northern Ireland businesses and the executive to ensure new admin procedures are streamlined and efficient,’ the spokesperson said.”
JR: This is refighting the last war, and I accept that Boris Johnson has been slippery on the subject, but he did not say there would be no checks at all on goods crossing the Irish Sea. He has always accepted that goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be checked if there were a risk of their going on to the Irish Republic. Almost the whole problem since then has been about the definition of “risk”.
Hans2: Inside the EU the UK was a major player (second economy, second in inhabitants) outside the matter is different. Inside you had a louder voice than, say, the Republic of Ireland. Now for you it is like the Republic of Ireland has an economy and population eight times that of the UK, because of EU solidarity.
Isn’t it about time you English came to face that reality? The reality that you are not top tier in Europe (or the world) any more having spurned the support of EU solidarity?
JR: I’m not English, but I accept that people will continue to disagree about the fundamental question of the UK’s membership of the EU. That is not the question here, though. Today’s question is whether the EU and the UK can agree rules on sausages.
Hans2: Don’t you agree that on the Northern Ireland protocol the UK has a simple choice between sovereignty and red tape, or between rule-taking and minimal friction? Is not the EU within its right to demand that a country of 67 million align with a union of 450 million and not the other way around? And that a “balanced alignment” gives more say to the 450 million that to the 67 million?
In other words, doesn’t Brexit make the UK a rule-taker of the EU, US, or China, but not an equal partner of any of those three?
JR: No I don’t agree that Northern Ireland’s status is a simple choice. It has to be a complex compromise balancing differing requirements. It may be that they are mutually exclusive and that compromise is not possible, but I don’t think that has been decided yet. If the DUP and Sinn Fein can agree on a form of devolved government for Northern Ireland, it, the EU, the Irish government and the UK might be able to agree the rules on sausages.
Hans2: Kwasi Kwarteng claimed that “nobody could have known the consequences of the protocol”. That is belied by all the “Project Fear” contributions during the Brexit and trade agreement discussions. Isn’t it time for media, including The Independent, to call out the government for what it is: a bunch of shameless liars?
JR: I think it is fair to say that no one knew exactly how the protocol would work in practice. Of course, Boris Johnson and others are guilty of sweeping problems to one side and assuming everything could be made to work. It would be better if they adopted a more humble tone, admitting to the EU that they had under-estimated the difficulties and asking for help, but I don’t think your idea that the media should throw insults about would help.
Real European: The UK does not want to change the implementation of the protocol, it wants to change the protocol itself. For instance, removing the European Court of Justice’s oversight over the EU’s own border controls (!) is not a matter of implementation of the protocol.
JR: It wants to do both.
Real European: Awaiting the changes the UK wants, the UK demands to legalise its non-compliance with the protocol until further notice with impunity(!). That in itself is a radical and profound change of the protocol.
JR: This is true, but doesn’t absolve the EU side from a responsibility to help find a solution to the practical problems.
Amazed9000: Brexit and the Johnson-deal made the problems that are insoluble.
JR: Well, yes, that is a point of view. But it is worth seeing if difficult problems can be solved.
Thank you for all your questions. An awful lot seem to start from the assumption that the EU can do no wrong and is dealing with a rude and untrustworthy outsider. I don’t think this is wholly true, although Boris Johnson can be irritating. But there is no reason why the UK proposals for Northern Ireland shouldn’t work. That probably requires negotiating a separate agreement for food, to deal with the sausage problem, which is what I expect to happen.
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