Brexit: Northern Ireland protocol questions answered

As the government’s plan for the Northern Ireland protocol continues to bubble, political correspondent Adam Forrest answered reader questions on Brexit during an ‘Ask Me Anything’ event on Wednesday.

Downing Street has defended plans to override parts of the protocol after the EU confirmed that it is taking legal action over the UK’s proposed changes to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Here are seven key questions asked by readers, answered by Adam.

The EU certainty thinks so. “Let’s call a spade a spade – this is illegal,” said EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic today. The fact that Boris Johnson’s government has produce a summary of legal position (rather than the full legal advice) suggests it is not so confident. The legal justification – that the protocol is causing serious societal and economic difficulties – has been branded “hopeless” by the government’s former chief lawyer Jonathan Jones. The unilateral plan to green ‘green’ and ‘red’ channels for goods in Northern Ireland isn’t so very far away from the compromise package the EU has already offered. But Brussels was shocked by how far the protocol bill goes in giving UK ministers powers to change huge swathes of the protocol.

Tory peer Ken Clarke predicts that the “vast majority” of Lords will oppose the bill and will “hold it up for a considerable time”. Some think it hold it up for a year. But peers can do more than delay. They can actually dilute the bill. In November 2020, the Lords handed the government a significant defeat over the Internal Market Bill – a previous bid to override parts of the Brexit agreement – by voting 433 to 165 to remove key clauses. It’s not impossible the Lords could secure some important amendments during the “ping pong” phase if the mood in government towards EU is different is six to 12 months’ time. And the mood is always different in six to 12 months’ time.

The bill won’t necessarily spark a trade war anytime soon – though it remains a possibility. Despite genuine outrage, the legal action and all the feisty rhetoric, the EU will not overreact. Brussels chiefs are aware it could take six to 12 months for the legislation to get through parliament. Experts have told The Independent that the European Commission would start “preparatory work” on possible retaliatory moves – including tariffs on British goods or ways to suspend the Trade and Cooperation Pact (TCA) – as the bill moves through parliament. We could see the row fall into the muddle of suspended legal action. And however heated things seem at the moment, it’s possible we’ll see new talks aimed at a compromise at some point.

Despite the recent Tory rebellion, there are still relatively few Tory MPs willing to speak out on Brexit issues since they know they’ll be dismissed as bitter “Remoaners”. Which could damage the cause of getting rid of Boris Johnson. But ‘One Nation’ types are anxious about the idea of breaking international law. So an unnecessary row with the EU will lead to some quiet frustration on the Tory backbenches. It’s unlikely to change any MPs’ views on Brexit. Or the views of Brexiteer supporters. But you wondered how many years a Tory government can pick fights with the EU without even some Brexiteers getting exhausted.

The Centre for European Reform (CEF) has just carried out a very interesting study. By the end of last year, Britain’s economy was 5.2 per cent – or £31bn – smaller than it would have been without Brexit and the Covid pandemic. But the CEF found Brexit was “largely to blame” for the shortfalls, saying Britain suffered from sluggish economic performance – relative to our neighbours – both before and after the Covid lockdowns.

The government is certainly wondering how long the DUP can hold out for. According to The Times, ministers are ready to give the unionist party an ultimatum: saying they won’t push on with the bill’s second reading unless the party commits to resume power-sharing. The DUP will have to decide whether they really want to make Sinn Fein look like the sensible ones, and risk losing more voters to Alliance, if they hold up government at Stormont for the rest of the year.

Rees-Mogg is said to have told the cabinet that he wants to introduce automatic expiry dates for up to 2,000 pieces of EU regulatory legislation (by June 2026). He hopes the deadline will force ministers to get their departments looking at rules that can be scrapped or changed. But lawyers have warned that “blanket” changes are a recipe for “potential chaos”. Business is worried that blanket changes at a “cliff edge” deadline will create a lot of uncertainty and turn investors away. And some cabinet members are thought to be worried about practicality of such a plan.

These questions and answers were part of an ‘Ask Me Anything’ hosted by Adam Forrest at 3pm on Wednesday 15 June. 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.

Do you have any topics you’d like to see an expert host an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on? Let us know your suggestions in the comments below.

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