UK Plan To Change Northern Ireland Protocol Is Doing "Avoidable" Damage To EU Trust, Committee Chair Warns
The government's contentious move to alter the Northern Ireland Protocol without the European Union's agreement erodes trust and will make future negotiations more difficult, the chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has warned.
MP Simon Hoare told PoliticsHome that the UK's plan to extend grace periods for Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade without an agreement with the EU had "probably stretched the elastic to snapping point".
The EU reacted furiously on Wednesday when the government said that it was taking its own steps to reduce disruption brought about by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Among them is a plan to postpone the introduction of health paperwork for food heading across the Irish Sea by six months. This grace period, agreed by both sides, is due to expire on April 1st.
Cabinet Office Minister David Frost, who recently replaced Michael Gove as the UK representative on issues relating to the Protocol, insisted that the move did not breach the terms of the treaty and was designed to "provide more time for businesses" to adapt to new trading arrangements.
However, Maros Sefcovic, who co-chairs the UK-EU Joint Committee with Frost, said it was a "violation" of the Protocol and a breach of "good faith" clauses in the Brexit agreement.
Sefcovic said that the European Commission would "respond to these developments in accordance with the legal means established by the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement".
Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney told RTE that Brussels felt "the UK cannot simply be trusted" after the move and that it had been left with "no option" but to pursue legal action.
Hoare, the Conservative MP for North Dorset, said that while the grace period should be extended to give businesses more time to adapt to new trading arrangements, the government should have secured an agreement with the EU to do so.
UK and EU officials on the Joint Committee had in recent weeks been discussing ways of simplifying Northern Ireland Protocol for traders affected by delays and complex red tape.
“The byproduct of unilateral action, as necessary as it may be, is to enhance the lack of trust and therefore makes future conversations less friendly from the start," Hoare told PoliticsHome.
"Every time something like this is done, some sort of unilateral action, we turn the dial backwards which had been moving forwards – and that dial is marked confidence and trust.
“My fear is that for short-term advantage, we are ramping up some long-term issues which can be resolved diplomatically in the usual channels. It’s a huge and avoidable waste of time”.
Frost sought to downplay the move on Wednesday, describing the measures as no more than "temporary technical steps" which were "entirely consistent" with the UK's obligations.
However, Hoare said that the government has "probably stretched the elastic to snapping point in terms of interpretation [of the Protocol]".
The senior Tory MP urged the Joint Committee to overcome the latest row and agree to extend to the grace period so businesses have more time to adapt to the new paperwork.
“In hindsight, amid all the euphoria of the Protocol being announced, nobody paused to ask ‘is this grace period long enough?’ If that had been asked at the time, the answer would be no," he said.
The row is just the latest between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sefcovic last night said that the UK was set to breach international law a "second time" – a reference to the government's controversial plan last year to disapply parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol using the Internal Market Bill. The threat caused outrage in Europe and Westminister.
Earlier this year, the EU created uproar across the Channel when it announced a plan to impose export controls on coronavirus vaccines heading to the UK via the Republic of Ireland, by triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The European Commission ditched the plan hours after it was announced but the government said that the move damaged its trust in the bloc and caused anxiety in Northern Ireland.
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh said the UK's latest move would "do nothing to solve those long-term challenges facing Northern Ireland".
“This is the deal the Prime Minister demanded – he should show some responsibility, and find the lasting solutions with the EU that remain the only way to give businesses the certainty they are crying out for," the Labour MP said.