As talks continue about the implementation of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol, partial extensions to the current grace period are the most likely outcome beyond 1 April. The grace period currently still limits the degree to which the UK has to implement new border controls in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Such controls will at some point be required, now that Great Britain has left the single market and the customs union, the rules of which, however, continue to apply in Northern Ireland, preventing a visible land border with the Republic of Ireland.
The next practical test will arise at the beginning of next week. As per UK government instructions, EU-compatible health certificates will be required for processed meat exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This procedure will eventually be required for all types of food, animal, and plant exports. But even before all of these certificates have been phased in, supermarket supply chains have experienced problems with the new customs bureaucracy, leading to some instances of empty shelves in Northern Ireland.
24 February is the deadline for the next meeting of the joint EU-UK Brexit committee. In talks so far, the UK has demanded a series of 18-month extensions for the grace period. The EU has rejected this, but both sides have agreed to talk to businesses and traders directly to get a better sense of the practical problems at hand.
Politically, other EU member states have been unhappy about Irish calls to dial down the rhetoric after recent standoffs over the Irish border. While other capitals acknowledge the border’s importance for peace on the island of Ireland, they also want a working EU customs regime to control the influx of goods into the single market. But negotiating on their behalf, the European Commission has undermined its own position with its chaotic attempts to get a grip on its vaccine fiasco, which included brief musings about the reintroduction of controls at the Irish border.
As a result, the idea of the protocol’s limited application is now in the world – thanks to the Commission, not to Northern Irish unionists who have always been skeptical of moving the border into the Irish Sea. Unionists were quick to jump at the Commission’s gaffe, claiming that Brussels had now revealed its true face, and that it was not the honest broker for peace and stability as which the Commission had positioned itself. Meanwhile, the UK government has called for “resetting” the protocol.
The most likely way forward is a gradual process of shorter extensions during which some controls will be phased in – and perhaps put on hold again in case of all too serious disruption. But the EU’s ability to play hardball has ben weakened. The resulting choreography might also be impacted by the volumes of goods to be processed, and therefore by the speed at which post-pandemic trade picks up again in light of the UK’s highly effective (and the EU’s badly stalling) vaccine rollout. In return for ever-greater protocol compliance over time, the UK might be able to extract some technical EU concessions, thus marginally easing the new bureaucracy required. Westminster may sell this as a success to unionists.