June 2021 is a moment of hope and reflection. We have learnt much in the pandemic about our collective resilience, sense of common values and interdependence. We take pride in how frontline workers in Ireland, the UK and across the world sacrificed so much to protect the most vulnerable.
The contribution of the Irish in Britain to the NHS’s response and of Britons in Ireland were powerful reminders of our deep interconnectedness. We are at our best when we work in partnership towards a common goal.
It is in this spirit of partnership that we need to restore and revitalise the EU-UK relationship. The years of Brexit negotiations and campaigning are over. Now is the moment for real political leadership to make the most of the agreement struck by the UK. That deal provides for a partnership with the EU that supports citizens and businesses, now emerging from the pandemic.
However, for it to work, the relationship requires both sides to make wise decisions and responsible choices.
Since 2016, the UK has made choices: the UK chose to leave the EU; it chose the type of Brexit it wanted; it chose the Northern Ireland Protocol; and it regrettably chose unilateral action in breach of its legal obligations. At each turn, the EU has sought to respond with real-world solutions that respect the UK’s choices.
Neither Ireland nor the EU wanted or sought trade barriers. The UK Government chose that path. The checks and controls on British goods entering the Single Market are the result of that choice, with inevitable costs for businesses and consumers.
This outcome was understood by the UK Government during the negotiations and in the last UK general election, when the type of Brexit pursued was central to the Conservative election platform. The UK Government made clear-eyed, legally binding commitments in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
The Protocol is a creative joint UK-EU solution to the many serious challenges raised by Brexit on the island of Ireland. It took more than four years of negotiation and exploring of all other options. Ultimately, the UK and the EU found and agreed solutions to the challenges together.
The Protocol protects the Good Friday Agreement – it explicitly respects the principle of consent on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Protocol also gives Northern Ireland unique access to both the UK and EU internal market.
The UK’s choice of a “hard” Brexit created many challenges, not least for the people of Northern Ireland, who voted 56 per cent to 44 per cent to Remain in the Brexit referendum. As the creation of the Protocol was a joint effort, so must its implementation be. The UK must show commitment to delivery and work alongside the EU. However, we must also recognise that the UK’s decision to prioritise regulatory sovereignty over seamless access for its traders and exporters to the EU Single Market has consequences for Northern Ireland.
The current challenges ultimately cannot be addressed by the UK acting unilaterally to override provisions of the Protocol – that would only mean further instability, doubt and rancour. The lesson, hard-learned in the years leading to the peace process, was that sustainable results are achieved only when the key players work together.
There have been mistakes made by both sides, like the widespread concern caused when the European Commission fleetingly considered using Article 16 of the Protocol. The EU heard those concerns and immediately reversed course within hours. In contrast, reciprocal concerns regarding the UK Government’s ongoing disregard of its legal obligations, under an agreement it negotiated and Parliament ratified, have gone unheeded.
Unilateral actions only damage trust and make effective cooperation much more difficult – not just between the UK and the EU, but also within Northern Ireland. Its interests and the peace process are best protected by partnership and agreed solutions. They are urgently required now.
So how do we move on? The EU is designing proposals that will meet many of the issues of genuine concern to Northern Irish traders. For instance, an SPS/veterinary agreement could remove up to 80 per cent of checks on agri-food goods in Northern Ireland’s ports.
This idea has widespread support across Northern Ireland – business, farming, political, and community leaders have told me directly that they support it. I hope the UK Government will listen to their voices and seriously engage with this solution.
My UK counterparts have stressed that they want the arrangements for Northern Ireland to be as light as possible – here is a simple, concrete and positive choice the UK could make to achieve that aim. The EU side is open to making it work.