Ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – don’t risk a trade war with the EU

© Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire

Philippa Whitford, MP

6 minute read

The UK Government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has now begun its journey through Parliament. If passed, it will unilaterally set aside important sections of the Protocol, breaking international law and risking a trade war amid a cost of living crisis.

The protocol is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which Boris Johnson was very happy to take credit for when he proclaimed he would ‘do Brexit’ in the 2019 election. This irresponsible legislation is not supported by the majority of Northern Irish people and should be withdrawn without delay.

The Prime Minister cites economic failure and the outcome of the recent election in Northern Ireland as excuses to tear up the original deal. Yet a clear majority of Assembly members support the protocol in principle and recent data shows that economic growth in Northern Ireland is outpacing that of the rest of the UK. Once again Boris Johnson ignores the truth.

This government’s reckless decision to tear up sections of the protocol risks sparking a trade war with the EU, which could lead to the imposition of tariffs on UK exports

The Northern Ireland Protocol is an attempt to mitigate the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, where 30 years of violence ended with the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of power-sharing between nationalist and unionist parties.

Brexiteers denied the EU’s role in the peace process – from providing a neutral forum in which British and Irish leaders could develop closer relations to funding cross-community programmes, as well as its role as the one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

From the start, the Leave campaign paid little attention to Northern Ireland, and there was a lack of realism – and even honesty – about the destabilizing effect of Brexit. The Foreign Secretary talks about the need for cross-community consent for the protocol, but ignores the fact that, like Scotland, the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU – they did not given their consent for Brexit in the first place!

It was of course the UK’s exit from the EU, rather than the protocol, that created a difficult situation for Northern Ireland. This was acknowledged by then Prime Minister Arlene Foster when she demanded a special trade deal for Northern Ireland shortly after the referendum – a request for special treatment which, once granted, was then withdrawn. rejected by her and her party.

There were only ever three choices that would square the circle:

  • the return of a border on the island of Ireland
  • close alignment between UK and EU regulatory standards, including veterinary agreement to reduce the need for checks
  • checks to be carried out in the main ports of Northern Ireland

The return of border infrastructure to Ireland was seen as an unacceptable threat to peace, but it was Boris Johnson’s choice of a ‘hard’ Brexit, with maximum divergence from the EU, that left the checks on Irish Sea crossings as the only practical option.

The problems with an Irish Sea border were clearly highlighted in the government’s own impact assessment, published in October 2019. This means that Boris Johnson was aware of the additional bureaucracy from the start, and his assertion in December 2019 that there was “no question of there being checks on goods going from NI to GB or from GB to NI” was disingenuous to say the least.

Rejecting the need for checks on goods that may enter the single market via Northern Ireland, the UK government says current UK regulations remain similar to those in the EU – but proposes to scrap EU standards by through the “Brexit Freedoms Bill” and enters into trade deals that would see substandard goods and foodstuffs imported into Scotland and across the UK and potentially Northern Ireland.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s claims, recent economic data shows that Northern Ireland’s economy is outpacing that of Britain, with the latest figures showing cross-border exports to the Republic of Ireland have increased by 65%. This only underlines the advantages for NI of having preferential access to the single market – the largest trading bloc in the world and seven times the size of the UK market. The Scottish Government has also asked to remain in the single market, in recognition of our firm vote to remain in the EU. This was completely ignored and Scotland was expelled – to the detriment of our economy.

Business surveys conducted by the NI Chamber of Commerce show that two-thirds of local businesses have now adapted to the protocol. 70% believe their ‘unique trading position’, with preferential access to the UK and EU single market, presents opportunities for Northern Ireland, highlighting what Scotland and the rest of the UK lost.

Improvements to the implementation of the protocol could be made to reduce bureaucracy, although the number of companies facing significant challenges has fallen from 15% to 8%, but the UK is not currently engaging in any discussion on the mitigation measures proposed by the EU. However, business leaders in Northern Ireland are clear that while they are looking for improvements, they do not want the protocol scrapped.

The failure to implement the protocol has not only led to a further loss of confidence in this law-breaking UK government, but has also blocked the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe, the main EU funding programme. EU for research and innovation with a budget of 95.5 billion euros. This has a disproportionate impact on researchers in Scotland who have done well above their weight in attracting EU research grants.

This government’s reckless decision to tear up sections of the protocol risks sparking a trade war with the EU, which could lead to the imposition of tariffs on UK exports. As Scotland produces the UK’s main food and drink exports, including whiskey and salmon, Scottish businesses could face the brunt of such retaliatory measures.

It is essential that the UK and the EU come back to the table to discuss practical improvements in the way the protocol is implemented – for the benefit of Northern Ireland, but also to protect people and businesses across Scotland and the UK amid the cost of crisis alive.

A solution can only be found with willpower, trust and good will, but unfortunately these are now very rare and unlikely to be improved by the Prime Minister’s threat to undermine unilaterally an international agreement that it signed less than three years ago.

Scotland has an escape from all of this – to be in control of its own future through independence.

Dr Philippa Whitford is the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire and the SNP Europe spokesperson at Westminster

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