A time-limited UK-EU treaty could solve the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol
The United Kingdom and the European Union both share both a common interest and a duty to do everything in their power to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland and support the still fragile process of reconciliation between different communities.
That includes a duty to overcome the mutual lack of trust between them and find a compromise over the Northern Ireland Protocol, current divisions over which have led to a worsening of political and sectarian division within Northern Ireland.
As was spelled out in the government's analysis published at the time, the deal negotiated by the Johnson government and endorsed in the Conservative 2019 General Election manifesto involved accepting checks and paperwork between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This has added to cost and bureaucracy for businesses and customers and is seen by many Unionists as undermining their British identity and breaching the principle, fundamental to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, of the equal treatment of British and Irish identities.
At the same time, the Protocol has given Northern Ireland firms the unique advantage of being able to sell freely into both the UK and EU markets, offering a huge potential incentive for more businesses to locate and invest there.
Without a rapid solution there is a very real risk of increased tension and unrest
Lord Frost and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič recently met in Brussels and agreed to engage intensively and constructively at both expert and political level. This is a positive step forward, as is the recent Commission paper indicating a willingness to take action to deal with many of the problems identified by Northern Ireland businesses.
The Conservative European Forum (CEF), which we re-launched earlier this year, is an organisation that develops positive and constructive proposals designed to rebuild trust and strengthen relationships between the UK and other democracies of Europe.
On 14th October, CEF published a possible solution to the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol: a standalone, time-limited UK-EU treaty on food safety and plant and animal health. We believe this offers a possible additional element in an overall compromise and has three key benefits.
First, writing sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) standards into a separate treaty between London and Brussels would allow disagreements to be dealt with by governance mechanisms like those established in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and arbitrated by an independent dispute resolution mechanism. This would in practice limit the role of the European Court to a claim of inconsistency with the Protocol or where the Commission was alleged to be acting in a way not allowed under the EU’s own treaties.
Second, the substance of the treaty would reflect the reality that the great majority of standards for food safety and animal and plant health are already the same in the EU and the UK and incorporated into our respective laws. Unlike the current arrangement, where checks and non-tariff barriers are imposed because the UK might in the future choose to diverge from those standards, the new treaty would allow those to be imposed only if the UK in fact did diverge. The UK would remain in full control over its own regulations and at any time could choose to change them – although it would have to weigh the cost to business and to reconciliation in Northern Ireland of so doing.
Third, the proposed treaty would be time-limited, expiring in 2025, by which date we would know the outcome of Stormont's decision on whether to continue the Protocol and the shape of the scheduled review of the EU/UK trade deal. The UK government, Northern Ireland parties and EU institutions and Member States would have a breathing-space in which to rebuild trust and work out a long-term solution.
The treaty we have put forward is entirely consistent with the current UK-EU framework and would sit alongside the Northern Ireland Protocol. It is also consistent with the principles applied by the EU to other third countries, such as New Zealand and Switzerland.
We offer this proposal as one possible route to rebuild trust, reach a good compromise and break the current impasse. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement helped ease sectarian divisions, but this should never be taken for granted. Without a rapid solution there is a very real risk of increased tension and unrest. It is now urgent that London and Brussels find a way to calm tensions and reach a workable compromise.
Sir David Lidington is a former Conservative MP and chair of the Conservative European Forum. Stephen Hammond is the Conservative MP for Wimbledon and deputy chair of the Conservative European Forum.
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