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John Simpson

Brexit issues haven't gone away during coronavirus crisis

John Simpson


Farmers, including those who keep dairy cattle, will have a particular interest in the EU-UK negotiations

Farmers, including those who keep dairy cattle, will have a particular interest in the EU-UK negotiations

Farmers, including those who keep dairy cattle, will have a particular interest in the EU-UK negotiations

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a serious body blow to private sector businesses in Northern Ireland. This year was evolving as a difficult trading year with major uncertainties emerging from the Brexit decisions and the pending negotiations for the longer-term relationship between the EU and the UK.

Added to this were the issues on how the agreed EU-UK Protocol affecting Northern Ireland and the Republic would be implemented.

Yesterday, the latest high-level negotiations on the protocol took place in a virtual conference.

Already there are signs that it will test the goodwill of some Northern Ireland interest groups.

The EU has said that it wants to appoint staff to an office in Northern Ireland to monitor the unusual arrangements for trade coming into NI from Great Britain so that if some of this trade is routed through NI but is destined to go into the EC by crossing the Northern Ireland/Republic border, it should be monitored.

The UK Government has indicated that the EC request will not be readily accepted.

Arrangements for unfettered trade, but subject to the complexities of the administration of the EU and UK borders, will need careful preparation where UK-EU compromises, consistent with the special protocol, must be found.

If they are not found there is a risk that the whole UK negotiation strategy with the EU could be stalled.

That would be welcomed into the argument by the Brexiteers but regarded as a breach of good faith, particularly by the Irish Government.

Northern Ireland farmers have a particular interest in these EU-UK negotiations. Whilst there are, from a local perspective, good reasons to try to find (Irish) cross-border arrangements that ensure that trading arrangements for milk, beef and lamb might continue as at present, that outcome will depend on an international agreement through the EC and UK authorities.

The disruption caused by the Covid-19 emergency may mean that a completed EU-UK agreement will take much longer to negotiate than currently hoped.

The European Commission appears ready to 'take as long as it takes' to discuss the ultimate agreement although the UK Government is not ready to concede any delay beyond the end of 2020.

The ultimate test, unwelcome as it would be to (nearly) all parties, would be a decision to accept the fall-back of World Trade Council terms, which would be a second best answer for UK and EC businesses and (dare an even lower classification be envisaged?) a 'third best' answer for business and farming in Northern Ireland.

The European Commission negotiators hold a number of policy ambitions that will challenge the UK team.

Northern Ireland issues will form part of a spectrum of questions but from a London or Brussels perspective, Northern Ireland may be a relatively modest challenge.

The Northern Ireland voice in the negotiations will try to insist its interests are protected.

Northern Ireland farming interests may coincide with wider EC interests. However, if the UK Government is anxious to import cheaper food at lower world market prices that would pose a potential clash.

The Northern Ireland fishing industry hopes to gain from a higher degree of quota and non-quota protection but the all-island fishing interests give some strength to a compromise on fishing rights and market access.

From a local perspective, probably the most important consequence of the negotiations for a UK-EU trade and payments deal will be the implications for jobs and investment in Northern Ireland.

Can the EU-UK Protocol, creating a unique trade and customs arrangement for NI, be used to ensure a 'best of both worlds' for business or, if the protocol is seen as a source of tension, will it rebound to our disadvantage?

A 'worst of both worlds' outcome would be a major blow to the future of the NI economy.

When Covid-19 tensions are added to the EC-UK negotiations, along with the pressures of the timetable to get an agreement by the end of 2020, the remaining months of 2020 are likely to be fraught.

Belfast Telegraph