UK Lowers Demands on Role of EU Court in Northern Ireland | International

The main negotiators from London and Brussels, David Frost and Maros Sefcovic, will double their meetings this week – they will be seen on Wednesday and Friday – to try to unravel the crisis around Northern Ireland. In the midst of the scandal that plagues the Johnson government, with the parties banned in Downing Street during the time of confinement, last Friday a very important turn in the British position in its confrontation with the EU almost went unnoticed by the media. Summoned several of the community correspondents working in London, a senior British official had no qualms in explaining that the negotiations, from now on, would adopt a more pragmatic tone.

The demand that the Minister for Relations with the EU had put on the table, that the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) cease to be the main supervisor of compliance with the rules of the internal market in Northern Irish territory, no longer ran as much hurry. “Nobody is demonstrating in the streets of Belfast to get rid of the CJEU,” said the high-ranking official quoted. It was a way of acknowledging that the real reasons for the current unrest among Northern Irish businessmen and unionist parties are more practical, in one case, and political, in another, than a confusing and complicated legal discussion about the sovereign integrity of the government. United Kingdom and the alleged “interference of a foreign court”.

“We want to focus on the problems that have arisen around generic drugs and customs controls, and we want the negotiations with the EU to bring results,” says the Johnson government now. Although, hours later, Frost broadly qualified the statements of the senior official, and assured that he did not renounce, in principle, the claim to get rid of the CJEU, everything suggests that London is looking for a pragmatic solution that avoids problems added to a tired end of the year politically complicated.

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The Irish Protocol, a document annexed to the EU Withdrawal Agreement signed between London and Brussels – with the same legal force as an international treaty – was the most delicate and complex obstacle to overcome during the long Brexit negotiations. Once out of the community club, the UK’s only land border with the European Union would be on the island of Ireland, because the Republic of Ireland is a member of the EU, and Northern Ireland is British territory. But imposing a new separation line, even if subtle and for customs purposes only, could jeopardize the delicate peace reached in the 1998 Good Friday Accords, which ended decades of military conflict in the area.

It was then agreed that the border should be invisible, to convey the fortunate feeling that they were all Irish living on a single island, even if a few meters away they were paid in pounds sterling instead of euros, or the road was measured in kilometers and not in miles. In order for Brussels to protect its precious internal market, the solution was for Northern Ireland to remain within it, and for customs controls to be carried out in the Irish Sea, the space of water that separates the island of Ireland from that of Greater Brittany.

Practical problems soon began to arise, especially in the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Large British supermarket chains, for example, with establishments on both islands, faced expensive and complex customs declarations for many of their materials, or even sanitary controls for meat products: the famous “sausage war”, as the British tabloids baptized it, in references to the fresh sausage so typical of British breakfast.

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Up to three occasions, the British Government unilaterally decided to delay the implementation of the controls that the agreed Protocol required it to carry out. Brussels wanted to adopt a flexible and pragmatic position. It would not completely renegotiate the treaty, but it was willing to modify those aspects that had caused unforeseen problems. In mid-October, the Vice President of the European Commission and main negotiator with London, Maros Sefcovic, surprised his counterpart, David Frost, with a generous offer that lowered customs controls in Northern Ireland by up to eighty percent, and simplified lots of paperwork.

Brussels was also much more flexible in solving the problem that arose around the shipment of generic drugs from the National Health Service (NHS) from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The Johnson Government, pressured by the unionist parties of the Northern Irish territory -which from the beginning considered the protocol as a betrayal-, and by the hard Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, which never liked this “transfer” to the EU to carry out Brexit, he chose to lock himself up. Instead of proclaiming the Brussels offer as a negotiating victory, he redoubled the bet and demanded that the CJEU had nothing to do with controlling the rules of the internal market in Northern Ireland. The intransigence displayed by London brought the two blocks to the brink of a commercial war, which was finally redirected.

London now admits, through the mouth of the senior official who spoke with EU correspondents on Friday, that the European Commission does not have a sufficient negotiating mandate from the Heads of State and Government of the 27 to negotiate such a fundamental part and intrinsic to the Northern Ireland Protocol as is the role of the CJEU. It is the perfect excuse to redirect negotiations to more practical ground, without formally renouncing the requirement that its supervisory role be taken from the court. “The time has come to accelerate the negotiations on medicines, and the EU is ready to amend its own legislation,” Sefcovic said on Twitter this Friday. “We will continue to work on proposals that bring real benefits to all communities in Northern Ireland.”

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Everything suggests that London and Brussels will continue negotiating beyond the New Year, but with a more relaxed and conciliatory tone. Johnson faces the threat of the new variant of the virus, omicron; to the rebellion of dozens of conservative deputies in the face of new social restrictions; a complicated government crisis, following the Downing Street banned party scandal; already a delicate economic situation, with unleashed inflation and serious problems in the supply chain. The perpetual battle with Brussels, which has given it so much political profit in recent years, has now become a burden that, for the time being, should be released.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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