The Northern Ireland Protocol: Current position and ways forward
- The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland forms part of the Withdrawal Agreement which formalised the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
- Its stated intention was protection of peace and stability in Northern Ireland, which was considered to require trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland to continue without border checks or formalities. Northern Ireland continues to be effectively within the EU’s single market for goods, which is protected by requiring customs declaration and regulatory formalities on goods from Great Britain at the ports of Northern Ireland.
- Single market rules therefore continue to have direct effect in Northern Ireland and burdensome requirements apply to movement of goods between two parts of the UK that are highly economically integrated.
- Economic and political disruptions have followed, culminating in the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and the refusal of the main Unionist party to re-enter government. Powersharing and other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement have ground to a halt. Available data suggest that there has been significant diversion of trade, an outcome that the European Commission is actively encouraging but that the Protocol expressly sought to avoid. In general, developments in practice, even with only partial implementation, indicate that key objectives of the Protocol are not being met.
- The UK put forward proposals to reform the Protocol in July last year and the EU responded in October with more limited proposals to adjust some elements of its implementation. The EU’s proposals are conditional on full implementation of the Protocol (including the ending of grace periods that have mitigated its effects so far) and UK alignment with certain EU regulations.
- The two sides appear to be far apart but the EU should give active consideration to the UK’s proposals, which are economically liberalising and seem more likely than the current form of the Protocol to achieve the parties’ aims for peace and stability, while protecting the single market. In the absence of agreement, the UK could be justified in taking unilateral action to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the welfare of the people of Northern Ireland.