From the Northern Ireland protocol to potential ‘opportunities’, questions about Brexit and what it means continue to arise nearly five years after the UK voted to leave the European Union.
The Independent’s Adam Forrest, who authors the Brexit and Beyond newsletter, answered questions from readers about all things Brexit during an ‘Ask Me Anything’ event.
Here’s a selection of some the questions and answers.
The protocol in Northern Ireland is working to the benefit of exporters. Why try and amend it?
There’s certainly evidence of a huge jump in trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In February, NI exports to the Republic were up 65 per cent compared with 2020, while exports from the Republic into NI were up 54 per cent. Trouble is, unionists take this as evidence of the six counties moving away from Great Britain’s orbit. While we can’t be sure of the impact of Brexit on trade from GB into NI, there’s little doubt Brexit has hit UK trade as a whole. Trade with the rest of the world is down by 12 to 13 per cent below their 2019 averages, according to the most recent estimate by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
How is the EU going to respond to this Article 16 nonsense? Surely they’re going to get fed up of Boris’ antics and do without a trade deal with us.
Rather than triggering Article 16, the UK bill looks set to put the ball in the EU’s court. Brussels has already made clear it is prepared for retaliatory measures if the UK tears up its protocol obligations. It could take the “nuclear” option of terminating the Trade and Cooperation Pact (TCA), or use Article 506 to begin imposing new tariffs on British goods. But the protocol-busting bill may not necessarily spark a trade war immediately. Worth bearing in mind that we’ve seen big crises aimed at triggering change, only for things to fall into the muddle of suspended legal action and further talks.
How can the government come up with a bill which breaks the law they already signed up to?
Ministers are said to be preparing a new bill that would give it new powers amount to “switch off” parts of the protocol that relate to border checks on good moving between GB and NI. There is speculation the legislation may try to repeal Section 7a of the EU Withdrawal Act – the law which enshrines the protocol into UK law. EU diplomats have talked about the idea being “utterly irresponsible” – with Brussels insisting that protocol is a legal obligation. One minister said the “mother of all rows” lies ahead.
How far will the British government go to appease anti-democratic unionism and ignore the will of the majority?
The timing suggests the protocol-busting bill being drawn up expectats that Sinn Fein will win the 5 May Northern Ireland elections. The unionist parties could potentially withdraw from both the executive and the assembly. The Queen’s Speech comes five days later on 10 May. So the government is likely to try to pounce on the sense of crisis and all the hysterical rhetoric from the DUP in a bid to shock the EU and much closer to the UK position. But the consequences are … uncertain. Brussels patient cannot always be taken for granted.
Every time our PM is in trouble, he lashes out to the EU. Frankly it is getting predictable, boring even, this continued chaos … But now? With the situation in Ukraine as it is?
It does seem convenient timing for Boris Johnson and his allies, who have tried to use the Ukraine crisis to deflect from Partygate. They may be desperate enough to dismiss the risks involved in this Brexit gambit. Former No 10 adviser Raoul Ruparel says talks on dropping GB-NI trade barriers have actually been “moving slowly in the UK’s direction” – so a big dispute would be “massively counter productive”. It’s also damaging the chances of a US trade deal. And potentially hurts the UK’s reputation with other prospective trade-dealing countries. As one EU diplomat has said: “Why would you then sign anything with the UK ever?”
Is the government really going to delay physical inspection checks coming in July again? Surely the uncertainty cannot be good for businesses.
The government has now scrapped the inspections on food imports from the EU that were set to come in on 1 July. Jacob Rees-Mogg has announced that they would not be enforced during 2022. Delayed until next year? Hard to say. Rees-Mogg suggested he wants complete overhaul of its border check plans – revealing that end of 2023 was the target for a brand new “controls regime”. Despite remaining uncertainty about exactly what kind checks will come in next year, the Federation of Small Businesses and other industry groups have welcomed the move.
What are the benefits and opportunities Jacob Rees-Mogg is going on about it? I thought Brexiters might happy getting blue passports, but seems like this hunt for red tape to axe stuff is going to go on and on for years.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s day job doesn’t seem to be keeping him too busy. He’s had time to leave passive-aggressive notes on the desks of civil servants working from home. Grilled about the advantages of Brexit, Rees-Mogg was forced to talk about obscure things like gene-editing rules. Or retreat into silly abstractions like “democracy”. He has promised his Brexit freedoms bill would offer a “mechanism” for diverging from retained EU law in a way that will be much “smoother and faster”. But that stuff is a little … dull. He seems unlikely to find any big, juicy wins that will keep Brexiteers as happy – like getting blue passports.
My question on Brexit is: when will it end? When will the government admit that it is damaging the economy? When will the Labour Party open the door to closer ties with Europe, even joining the single market & customs union?
Keir Starmer remains reluctant to talk about it – sticking to his vague commitment that a Labour government would be focused on “making Brexit work” by helping businesses (but ruled out re-joining single market and customs union). The Lib Dems have been reluctant too, chastened by their last election performance. But the party’s spring conference recently backed a policy to “seek to join the single market”. So perhaps we’re seeing the start of something interesting.
These questions and answers were part of an ‘Ask Me Anything’ hosted by Adam Forrest at 3pm on Thursday 28 April. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for this article. You can read the full discussion in the comments section of the original article.
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