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Opinion: Make no mistake - this UK government will not rest until the Protocol is gone

Former negotiator Sydney Nash says it’s sovereignty, not sausages, that the UK government cares about.

Sydney Nash

THE CYCLE OF Brexit related disputes should be familiar to us all by now. They heat up in October around the Conservative Party conference, involve the UK government proposing radical new ideas they expect the EU to concede to immediately, and sometimes they result in the EU juggernaut moving, but only by an inch or two.

This month, the UK government ratcheted up its demands regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol. In effect, it wants the Protocol to be re-written. In response, the EU has proposed a series of targeted measures they believe will make it easier to move goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Businesses will likely welcome the proposals made by the EU. The UK government will most likely reject them, not because they fail to make it easier to move goods, but because the UK government’s real concern is that the Protocol, in their view, encroaches on UK national sovereignty.

It is this focus on sovereignty that is driving the UK government’s approach. They were elected to “get Brexit done”, and for them, that means the UK having full sovereign control over all the laws in all of the UK, with only UK courts overseeing them.

The Protocol is incompatible with that outlook. It is incompatible with their vision for Brexit.

For the Protocol to be acceptable to them, there would have to be no oversight role for the European Court of Justice (EJC) (one of the UK government’s demands), and no EU rules or standards would apply in Northern Ireland.

The Protocol

Only this version of the Protocol would satisfy a government that wants absolute control. Of course, this version of the Protocol would also be completely unacceptable to the EU. So, we are stuck.

Within the crucible of Northern Ireland, the EU’s fundamental principles and this UK government’s Brexit ideology are repeatedly clashing. The Protocol, as written, represents a compromise between these two opposing outlooks.

However, the UK government no longer appears interested in compromise. It is singularly focused on Brexit, sovereignty matters above all else.

Since it is impossible for the UK government to hold true to its Brexit ideology and accept the continuation of the Protocol in any form that might be consistent with the EU’s fundamental principles, it would be fair to assume that its ultimate aim is to scrap the Protocol altogether.

It will not do this immediately. First, it will make a set of proposals that it knows are unacceptable to the EU. It will then reject the EU’s counter proposals, arguing that they have failed to engage with key UK demands, notably those related to the role of the ECJ.

It will then trigger Article 16, pointing to trade diversion between the UK and the EU, via Northern Ireland, and an urgent need for action.

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Contrary to the rhetoric, triggering Article 16 does not lead to the unilateral suspension of the Protocol, but further talks between the UK and the EU. These will follow the familiar pattern, with the UK making demands it knows the EU will never accept. When the talks fail, there will be only one step left – the UK’s unilateral withdrawal from the Protocol.

The consequences of this will, of course, be serious, both economically and politically. This is not lost on this UK government, but nor is it the most important consideration for them.

For Brexiteers, the decision to leave the EU was a revolutionary moment, a chance to take the country back, to have absolute sovereign control over UK affairs, not just in Great Britain, but in Northern Ireland as well.

This is the perspective of this UK government, and for them, the continuing existence of the Protocol is evidence that the Brexit revolution is still not done.

Sydney Nash is a former civil servant and UK/EU negotiator, and a former advisor to the automotive sector on Brexit and international trade. He writes in a personal capacity and can be found @NashSGC.

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