This morning, Stephen Booth looks at what a deal could look like between the UK and the EU on reforming the Northern Irish Protocol.
Previously, I suggested that a deal that rejected the tough governance questions that upset Democratic Unionists and European research groups would not get Stormont back up and running; Our editor earlier suggested that if it can be done, it could be a preferred option for Rishi Sunak.
We are still awaiting the actual size of the deal, which is apparently awaiting approval from Number Ten. But while we wait, the question is worth considering: what kind of deal will the ERG and DUP accept?
The two most important points are these. First, Booth is absolutely right that “no compromise will be perfect”; There are many potential downsides for the UK in the negotiations and a real danger that we miss by insisting on an ideal outcome from them.
Second, the DUP know that Stormont is their best bargaining chip and they will probably play it once.
It is their walkout, combined with the pressure created by the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, which goes a long way to explaining why Theresa May suddenly felt their concerns were being taken seriously in 2017. Tony Connelly reported for RTÉ in 2017:
“…do a bold and risky thing, and say to the DUP, listen guys, you’ve got nowhere else to go anyway, so what’s going to happen?”
This quote should be printed and pasted to monitors who speculate why the DEP is so adamant about returning to the Assembly – at least along with their poll ratings.
So the question is, what kind of outcome might hit the sweet spot: deliverable now, but worth Sir Geoffrey Donaldson cashing in on his most valuable bargaining chip?
One answer was suggested to me this week: providing a proper double-standard system in Northern Ireland and undermining the fundamental principles of the province’s single market.
The argument is this. Currently, even if the Protocol is being properly implemented – which it never has been and never will be – it still represents a breakdown of the full-fat single market, which is supposed to cover goods, services, capital and labour; Ulster is in the single market for goods only.
Although it was by no means fully formed – Britain was often frustrated by the slow development of the single market in services, for example – it was not supposed to break up as such; Witness David Cameron’s unhappy attempts to negotiate a deal that, from Brussels’ perspective, undermined the single labor market by restricting freedom of movement.
From the perspective of the European Union, therefore, the status quo is problematic, and the more exceptional the situation in Northern Ireland, the more problematic it becomes. The inviolable nature of EU institutions is difficult to appeal to countries like Poland, which may seek special treatment in judicial matters, when a high-profile counter-example exists.
Back to the current discussion, there is the EU Apparently admitted Goods entering and staying in Northern Ireland from the mainland should be treated differently to those traveling in the Single Market.
NEW: The EU will adopt the principle that GB goods sent to and located in NI should be treated differently to goods going south in the single market and thus agree a green and red lane model at the UK’s proposed ports, a senior EU official has said. @rtnews
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) February 6, 2023
This exemption is facilitated by submission of evidence of reduced actual inflow of such goods across the border; London could also point out that large parts of the protocol were never implemented, and if it was to cause dangerous distortions in the single market, we would have seen them by now.
Thus the idea of red lane and green lane. That idea isn’t guaranteed to yield a deal acceptable to Donaldson and his allies, but it could be.
A de minimis Versions, which created static carve-outs for a certain range of problematic products, would not be worth it. Northern Ireland will be subject to an ever-increasing law over which it has no political input, which will gradually de-align its economy from the rest of the country.
But imagine instead a version of what I mentioned last Monday: EU regulations (including ECJ oversight) apply only to companies exporting to the single market; A default of seamless trade between Ulster and the mainland, with data-led enforcement in case of problems; And local businesses are by default subject to British law (at least not so long as they are in fair competition with mainland competitors).
This will obviously be the case idealThe Belfast Agreement was rooted in the May-era capitulation to the idea that it did not in any way demand any change in North-South trade. But it would adequately address the problems of governance and east-west trade and prevent the Ulster economy from being gradually pulled away from Great Britain.
(Importantly, the only way to have such a deal is if you have granular data to allow for targeted interventions and hands-off approaches at the border; one way to shoot down such data systems on the basis of sovereignty is that the ERG and the DUP can make the perfect enemy of the good.)
Sturgeon is still fending off the scandal
Another week, and there’s still no sign that the debate over Nicola Sturgeon’s controversial Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill is going well for the First Minister.
A new IPSOS poll found Scots still do not support Alastair Jack’s intervention by 50 to 33 per cent, but Scottish Daily Express The report said almost a third of SNP voters backed the Secretary of State’s decision to block the bill.
It’s a valuable reminder that while nationalists continue to dominate Scottish politics at the moment, their voters are by no means constitutional purists. By separating the question of their voting from the question of independence (at least before polling day, that’s another matter later) the SNP ensured their huge victory.
Alex Salmond, meanwhile, is clearly trying to manipulate the sections, warning his successor that a legal challenge to Jack’s decision to use s35 – which he has so far signally failed to mount – would damage the independence cause.
His Alba Party tried to break away from the right wing of the Nationalists, but with little success; Her high-profile allies with strong gender-critical views, such as Joanna Cherry, remain in the SNP, despite being completely sidelined by the leadership. Is the former first minister interested in emigration?
Meanwhile, Sturgeon is coming under renewed pressure over a lingering £107,000 loan to the SNP from the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell – who happens to be her husband. This week he claims he doesn’t remember learning about it; Fortunately, as Herald reports that it “breached reporting rules on three separate occasions”.
This story ties in with other SNP finance issues: this column noted in December:
“The loan apparently coincided with the start of a police investigation into whether the SNP fraudulently raised more than £600,000 for a referendum campaign and then, in the absence of a referendum, spent it on other things.”
Meanwhile, there was fresh evidence of a phalanx-like breakdown of nationalists as Glasgow leaders demanded the Scottish Government stop meddling in local authority budgets, Scotland’s biggest council. Long-term readers of this column may recall that a common SNP tactic is to subsidize council tax and top up council budgets with ring-fenced funding, stifling the autonomy of the latter.
Since 2014, Scottish politics has seemed to question what happens when an overwhelming force (the SNP) meets an immovable (public opinion on independence). It increasingly looks like the former will stop before it leaves.
Scottish Independence Vote Intent:
NO: 46% (+4)
Yes: 40% (-7)
Don’t Know: 14% (+3)
NO: 53% (+6)
Yes: 47% (-6)
through @YouGov23-26 January,
Change with December 9.
— British Electoral Politics (@elecpoliticsuk) February 7, 2023