After a long hiatus, the celebrated European Research Group is back in action, armed with a report that illustrates why the Irish Protocol is unworkable and needs to be scrapped.
The Telegraph has had a peek at the powerful new document, which arrives at a pivotal time. The DUP, along with the allies on both sides of the Irish Sea, including UUP grandee Lord Trimble is contesting the hated Protocol in the courts. Meanwhile, to the dismay of Brexiteers, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove yesterday gave his approval of the Protocol in a joint statement with the European Commission.
At the end of the month, Gove will step aside for the less compliant Lord Frost, who led the successful trade negotiations with the EU. And while the ERG might be buoyed by Frost’s appointment, they want the Protocol, a relic of the Withdrawal Agreement, dealt with.
The report, entitled, “Re-uniting the Kingdom: How and why to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol” says the system under which the EU has effective control over trade in the Irish Sea, obstructing commerce within the United Kingdom has “had a profound and negative effect”.
The ERG are prepared to work within the constraints of the Withdrawal Agreement, which demands that goods exported to any part of Ireland conform with EU rules, but the group of Tory backbenchers wants more control for Britain under the principle of “mutual enforcement”.
UK customs officials would be left alone to check consignments away from ports and borders at factories and warehouses instead, making life significantly easier for businesses.
“As this report makes crystal clear, from the viewpoint of the ERG, the NI protocol has to go. We’ve recommended an alternative called mutual enforcement which gives both sides what they need without infringing the sovereignty of either party,” said ERG chairman, Mark Francois.
“We very much hope that just as the EU swore blind they would never abandon the backstop and then did so, they may yet abandon their adherence to the protocol as well.”
Northern Irish peer and former Labour MP, Kate Hoey welcomed the ERG’s intervention, tweeting: “A very welcome report – Conservative MPs now recognising the Protocol must go.”
Many others will see the ERG’s proposal as a reasonable request, but the EU is still gunning for more intrusion into how Britain administers internal trade with Ireland.
Earlier this month, Gove’s opposite number, Maros Sefcovic doubled down on the Protocol after the UK Government asked for a series of modest extensions and exemptions, demanding full access to the UK trade authorities’ IT systems.
The demands were issued during discussions over the Protocol, which now appear to be on pause with the two sides at an impasse. However, yesterday Gove and Sefcovic made a joint commitment to its “proper implementation”
Set against the massive set back the EU inflicted on itself last month by triggering Article 16, leavers will conclude the government is capitulating.
Article 16 is essentially a kill switch on the supposedly shared commitment of both sides to a borderless Ireland, the underlying purpose of the Protocol. The decision to flick it by European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, which she quickly aborted, indicated weaknesses in the EU’s resolve. Gove’s complete failure to test that resolve worried Brexiteers.
A Telegraph source in the British Government sees little room for manoeuvre saying that there “seems to be a lack of understanding on the EU side”.
But with the ERG back and still in possession of star billing thanks to its pivotal role in seeing through a sovereign Brexit for most if not all of the United Kingdom, and Frost taking over from Gove, the EU may be forced to reconsider its options.