Sean Kelly: Is Britain’s Command Paper genuine negotiation or political grandstanding?

After years of erratic politics, fickle promises and cliff edges around Brexit, patience has truly worn thin, but the EU and the Irish government will continue to seek solutions

6th August, 2021
Sean Kelly: Is Britain’s Command Paper genuine negotiation or political grandstanding?
‘Implementing the Command Paper proposals in their entirety would amount to a renegotiation of around half of the protocol. This clearly is not acceptable.’ Picture: Getty

Just seven months after it came into force, the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland was put back on centre stage as David Frost, Britain’s Brexit Minister, and Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, set out their vision for removing trade friction between Britain and Northern Ireland in a new Command Paper. This has set a new tone in negotiations focused on trade, and not a welcome one.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been open about his desire to diverge from EU trade standards in the future. UK standards may be similar to ours now, but that will likely not be the case in five years time. The implementation of the Protocol and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) will be a difficult and ongoing challenge. This is regrettable. After 40 years of close cooperation it did not need to be this hard.

In the face of these challenges, the European Parliament will have a big role to play in ensuring robust negotiations and detailed scrutiny of the Command Paper and any trade agreements. As chair of the UK Monitoring Group, I will be leading my colleagues in monitoring all aspects relevant to trade at a granular level, steering us towards the best possible outcome for all citizens on the island of Ireland.

The unity of position within the EU seems to have come as a surprise to Johnson. In the EU, we are rightly proud of this unity, and it is often cited as an example of cohesion in the face of fundamental challenges. This is exemplified in the European Parliament, with MEPs from all political groups and backgrounds condemning unilateral actions by the UK government on the Northern Ireland protocol. After years of erratic politics, fickle promises and cliff edges around Brexit, patience has truly worn thin.

While the protocol is not ideal, I remain steadfast in the view it can work if it is given some time to breathe — it is the politics, not the technical aspects, that are the obstacle. Goods produced in Northern Ireland have access to both EU and British lucrative markets. These goods will face no import duties or regulatory burden when put on the market in the EU, as they comply with the EU’s product requirements. With Northern Ireland’s dual market access, advanced legal system, top-class universities, infrastructure, competitive operating costs and proximity to major markets, it could be a unique place to invest.

There is a danger, however, that Northern Ireland could become a casualty of the post-Brexit deterioration in relations between the EU and the UK. This would be disastrous for the all-island economy, so there is still plenty on the line.

With a High Court judge in Belfast ruling that the protocol is lawful, there now needs to be a marked change in thinking of it in constitutional terms, where emotion runs high, and bringing it back to the realistic and less contentious space of trade. It is vital that we depoliticise the rhetoric around the protocol, and the Irish government and the EU must be more proactive in explaining and demonstrating its benefits – not to ignore the problems, but to rebalance the public rhetoric and try to rescue it from completely falling victim to the politics of always in Northern Ireland. For the island more broadly, it is critical that we keep minds focused on how to overcome the challenges that will inevitably arise.

Is the UK’s Command Paper a genuine attempt to inject positive impetus into negotiations, or political grandstanding to assuage a domestic electorate? It is mostly the latter, however legitimate concerns and ideas should be listened to.

Nonetheless, implementing Britain’s Command Paper proposals in their entirety would amount to a renegotiation of around half of the protocol. This clearly is not acceptable, especially as it includes known EU red lines such as the removal of the European Court of Justice jurisdiction from Single Market matters in Northern Ireland, a reason many member states signed up to the protocol in the first place. However, it is cruelly ironic that the British proposals necessitate a high level of trust among parties while they act in a way to denigrate it.

The erosion of trust has other ramifications; the EU has less incentive to move forward in areas of sectoral cooperation where interest is primarily on the British side, such as financial or legal services.

So, where do we go from here? Well, the Commission is looking in detail at the proposals put forward in the Command Paper this month and will consider whether positions can be bridged in September. This will be no easy task, but the EU and the Irish government remain consistent, we will seek creative and flexible solutions within the framework of the protocol.

Unilateral actions only bring us down one road: a dead end.

Seán Kelly is the lead MEP for UK trade matters in the European Parliament and chair of the UK Monitoring Group

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