An EU-UK veterinary agreement can ease pressures on the Northern Ireland Protocol
The government has options to ease the pressures on and tensions in Northern Ireland without undermining or discarding the Protocol.
As a divided society, Northern Ireland only works through sharing and interdependence. People interact and businesses have supply chains and sales both north-south and east-west. Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, was always going to bring boundaries and involve friction. Essentially, the UK’s decision to leave the Customs Union and Single Market creates an interface with the EU that must be managed somewhere.
The Protocol is the latest attempt to square an impossible circle of managing the particular challenges to Northern Ireland. It is not good, but with all other options to protect the Good Friday Agreement disregarded, the only course of action is to try and make it work.
So far, its implementation has been difficult, and in turn this is feeding political tensions and polarisation. Some aspects reflect teething problems which can and are being gradually resolved. But other aspects reflect structural issues.
Across Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there have been calls to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol to suspend aspects of its implementation. This isn’t the answer everyone thinks it is, and it’s actually counter-productive. Article 16 is not the replacement of the Protocol and I am struck that those advocating this course of action have not provided any credible or viable alternative.
Instead, some creative thinking is required.
The Protocol is merely a symptom of the problem, not the cause
Some of the pressures on Northern Ireland reflect the type of Brexit that the government has pursued and negotiated. A core issue is sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks and the associated export health certificates.
Great Britain is operating with the EU, including Northern Ireland,on a very simplistic basis. Other states, such as Switzerland and New Zealand, have much deeper levels of co-operation with the EU on such matters. The UK has opted for full regulatory autonomy, even though in practice the EU and UK are both keeping similar high standards.
Yet this is causing significant problems for movements into Northern Ireland, which will be exacerbated at the end of the current grace periods. Furthermore, it is a problem for all GB based food exporters into the EU as a whole.
So, what can we do? I have put forward three potential solutions to the UK and EU.
First, I have called on the government to urgently seek a comprehensive UK-EU veterinary agreement.
This would involve the EU granting an extension to the current grace periods, and then using the Trade Specialised Committee provided for with the Trade and Co-operation Agreement to agree the necessary measures. With the Protocol, this would in effect apply to GB to EU trade. Progress in this area would also address the problems around pet and guide dog movements.
Second, the UK could agree to align with EU SPS rules, and not diverge, and update its own legislation in line with any changes in the EU acquis during that period.
Third, a bespoke agreement could be reached on the Irish Sea interface, building on the existing grace period around supermarkets and on the supermarkets’ existing logistic system to provide a trusted trader system for food movements.
These options are realistic. Indeed, I understand there was an active debate with the current government as recently as December over whether to seek a veterinary agreement in the trade deal.
There is an important decision to be made: the government has options to ease the pressures on and tensions in Northern Ireland without undermining or discarding the Protocol, with all of the political and economic consequences that will flow from that, in addition to the negative international reactions.
The Protocol is merely a symptom of the problem, not the cause. But solutions are available if we think creatively.
Stephen Farry is the Alliance MP for North Down.