The British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss is holding a two day meeting this week with the EU Commission vice President , Maros Sevcovic, in an attempt to break the deadlock on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The meeting will take place in the Foreign Secretary’s country residence at Chevening. and the EU visitors will stay there overnight.
This suggests that a really serious effort is being made to resolve matters.
The fact that the negotiations are being handled on the UK side by the Foreign Secretary, one of the most senior and longest serving Ministers in the UK government. and an elected politician, is also a good sign.
She has a degree of political authority independently of the Prime Minister and thus has scope to make moves that her predecessor, Lord Frost could never have made.
On the other hand, she is a contender for the Tory party leadership, and there is no sign that she has been preparing the ground for a deal.
The expectations is the Conservative grassroots remain unrealistic and Liz Truss has stoked these expectations in an article she wrote in the “Sunday Telegraph”.
She said that
“we need to end the role of the European Court of Justice(ECJ) as the final arbiter of disputes”
between the EU and the UK on the interpretation of the Protocol.
Her language may be deliberately loose here.
Nobody is suggesting that the ECJ will arbitrate a dispute between the UK and the EU. But the EU side will have to act, in any agreements it makes with the UK, inaccordance with EU law and the ECJ has to have the final word in interpreting the meaning of the EU laws, that will apply in Northern Ireland , under the Protocol Boris Johnson and the UK Parliament signed up to .
Her article was all about what the UK needed, and she made no attempt to explain, to the Tory supporting readers of the Sunday Telegraph, that the EU is a system of rules, and these rules have to be interpreted consistently in all parts of Europe, including in regard to goods in Northern Ireland.
This failure to manage expectations could lead deep disappointments and a major crisis.
Writing in the “Irish Times “ last week, Professor Ronan McCrea, an Irish academic based in London, speculated that, if a compromise was not reached in the discussions between the EU and the UK on the Northern Ireland Protocol, this state might be forced to choose between imposing customs controls on the land border in Ireland, or ceasing to be fully part of the EU Single Market.
He did not see this arising simply from the UK invoking Article 16 of the Protocol, if that is all they do.
This is because Safeguard measures that the UK might take under Article 16 must be
” restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation”.
So any steps the UK might take under Article 16 would have to be narrowly focussed and temporary. But that is not the impression being given publicly in Britain.
Professor McCrea saw a bigger threat would arise if,rather than just invoking Article 16 , the UK just stopped implementing any controls at all, on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain. This would be a much more extreme step, but it flows from some of the rhetoric being used in Britain and among Unionists.
This , he argued, would mean, if the land border remained open, that exports from this country, to the rest of the EU could, no longer be relied upon to be compatible with EU rules on quality, safety and rules of origin.
One possibility is that, to avoid this, customs checks on goods coming from here might have to be introduced at ports in France, Belgium and the Netherlands on all goods coming from Ireland.
This would be a nightmare scenario for Ireland and would be tantamount to the UK attempting to force Ireland out of the EU. The EU will not allow this. So the sanctions it might take against the UK would be very severe. I think Liz Truss and Boris would want to avoid that, given the supply problems already being experienced by the UK economy. So I am hopeful a compromise will be reached. But the stakes are high!