Jacob Rees Mogg has been appointed as UK Minister for Brexit Opportunities, with a mandate from Boris Johnson to change 1000 regulations, now in force , which the UK adopted as an EU member.
This mandate, if acted upon, makes a settlement of the EU/UK dispute over the Protocol next to impossible.
The more EU inherited UK regulations in respect of goods, which Minister Rees Mogg changes, the more will be the frequency and intrusiveness of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
This because, under the Protocol Minister Rees Mogg and his colleagues signed , Northern Ireland will continue to apply EU regulations for goods, including food products.
Any new and different UK rules , sponsored by Minister Rees Mogg, will not apply in Northern Ireland . This will mean even more checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland to ensure that the goods comply with the EU rules.
New and different UK rules for goods, will also mean more things to check at British ports facing continental Europe, and more traffic jams on the roads approaching these ports.
Of course, this applies only to goods. In the case of services, the UK can make whatever rules it likes without any impact on customs checks at ports.
But as far as goods are concerned, it is almost as if the Rees Mogg appointment is designed to sabotage any possibility of his colleague Liz Truss finding an agreement with Vice President Sefcovic on a lightening the Protocol.
If he does the job he has been given , Mr Rees Mogg’s real title should perhaps be “Minister for Extra Trade Barriers”. Of course this applies only to goods.
A recent UK paper on the “Benefits of Brexit” suggested that scrapping EU rules could bring £1 billion worth of benefits to the UK economy. This seems like a figure plucked out of the sky. There is no detail of what rules might be changed, even though the UK has been preparing for the suppose benefits of Brexit for the past six years.
Indeed separate and different UK rules might actually increase costs, because of the duplication involved.
But there are strong suspicions that the “benefits of Brexit” paper is just for show, and that Rees Mogg will not actually be able to diverge much from EU standards at all, because UK businesses will not want to lose markets in the EU..
In a way, his appointment is an expression of the confused expectations about Brexit within the Conservative Party……members want a bonfire of EU rules. But they also want to be able to have their exports accepted in the countries of the EU as being compliant with the very EU rules they have just scrapped!
Businesses which trade internationally know the importance of regulations for both goods and services, and may not be so keen on unilateral UK regulatory changes that put the UK out of line with its neighbours to whom they want to export.
Whether it is product safety, or the transfer of cross-border data, domestic regulations and international agreements are a crucial element in making access to markets easier, or making them more difficult. Having different rules is a way of keeping imports out and making consumers pay more.
Under Prime Minister Theresa May there was some openness in the UK government to aligning with EU rules, particularly in the area of goods, in order to facilitate trade and resolve issues around Northern Ireland .
The arrival of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in July 2019 ended this openness. His view was that UK regulatory sovereignty is crucial, or at least must be made to appear to be so.
Boris Johnson’s present political difficulties weaken his ability to reach compromises with the EU on the Protocol.
His party is, in fact, a coalition between those who want more spending and those who want less spending, between those who want more protectionism and those who want less, and between those who want more regulation and those who want less.
Some problems have already arisen. The new UKCA conformity assessment mark to replace the EU’s CE mark, means greater internal regulatory inconsistency between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and hence more bureaucracy at Northern Ireland ports.
The more Rees Mogg does his job, the more will be the differences between Northern Ireland standards and those in the rest of the UK.
Trade Agreements may be an added complication.
For example there are suggestions that Canada will challenge the UK’s ban on hormone treated beef, as part of the accession process for the UK to the new Pacific Trade Agreement.
If this were to happen, it would mean extra controls on beef products from Britain coming into either part of Ireland. It would also place beef exports from either part of Ireland to Britain at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis hormone treated beef imported from Canada.
But would British consumers want to eat hormone treated beef?
Whether the UK actually diverges all that much from its existing EU standards or not, the fact that the UK is SAYING now it intends to diverge a lot , means that the EU has to maintain tight customs controls of British goods .
That means insisting that the Protocol is respected to the full in Northern Ireland ports, and continuing delays on British good going to continental Europe
So the Protocol row may go on and on, until the UK finally settles on what EU rules it wants to change, and what EU rules it intends to keep.
Given how slow progress on making these decisions has been in the six years since Brexit , the Protocol dispute could drag on for years.
This does not augur well for stability in Northern Ireland, or for Anglo Irish relations.