By Ella Lloyd | Political Editor
There has been significant speculation that the UK may trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol before the end of November, due to ongoing difficulties in negotiations with the EU. Although Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, did welcome a ‘change in tone’ of negotiations after a meeting with the UK’s Brexit minister Lord David Frost on November 12.
Triggering Article 16 would mean suspending parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, although it’s not clear which parts yet. The Article was written into the protocol for use in emergencies, and to prevent any unnecessary suffering. The UK believes that the EU is taking too robust an approach to implementing the protocol, and that it is not sustainable in its current form. The EU refutes this claim, pointing out that the protocol isn’t even being enforced in full yet due to extended grace periods, and that the UK agreed to the deal in full knowledge of how it would be implemented. Former government Advisor Dominic Cummings has suggested that the UK always intended to ‘ditch’ parts of the protocol which were disagreeable to them.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a part of the Brexit deal which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU single market, to maintain an unhindered flow of goods to and from the Republic of Ireland. If Northern Ireland were not a part of the single market, a hard border would have to be put on the island of Ireland. Instead, checks between Britain and Northern Ireland have been implemented, known as the Irish Sea Border.
Many of the checks are on food and animal products, dubbed the ‘sausage wars’, however they also concern medicine, where the EU has acknowledged a need to change the protocol. The protocol means that Northern Ireland must still follow the EU’s pharmaceutical regulations, but continues to supply much of its medicine from Great Britain, which no longer conforms to these regulations. The complications in supply this creates means many companies may stop supplying Northern Ireland. The extension of Grace periods means this has not come to fruition yet, but it remains a concern.
Šefčovič has outlined medicine as a top priority in negotiations, hoping an agreement in this area could act as a ‘blueprint’ for other issues.
Unionist Politicians in Northern Ireland are largely opposed to the Irish Sea Border and the protocol, as they believe it symbolically separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, undermining the Good Friday Agreement. Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s Agricultural Minister and DUP MLA, has told his officials to begin preparing for Article 16 to be triggered, something he believes is necessary to allow negotiations to continue. By Contrast the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has asked the UK to ‘remove the threat’ of triggering Article 16, saying it would cause instability.
It’s unclear yet in what capacity the UK may trigger the Article. It could mean that checks are suspended for goods travelling from Great Britain which are only intended for Northern Ireland and not the Republic of Ireland, or more dramatic measures affecting VAT and customs checks. This, in the EU’s view, would effectively create a back door to the single market.
If the UK does trigger it, then the EU can be expected to introduce ‘rebalancing’ measures, proportionate to the suspended protocols. Suspending checks on food and animal products entering Northern Ireland may require a response, but some analysts have suggested that further suspensions would “in effect dare the EU to either enforce a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland or between Ireland and the rest of the EU”. There is also the possibility that a trade war ensues, and the collapse of the Brexit deal.
This could have significant economic consequences for both parties, exacerbated by economies still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
A UK Government spokesperson has said that they are still looking to ‘find a consensual way forward’, as talks seemed to make progress this week. However, they also remarked that Article 16 remained a ‘legitimate safeguard’, and said talks would be ‘intensified’.
The shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh has opposed triggering Article 16, saying it would ‘prolong’ uncertainty and create ‘poisonous instability’.
Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has said the move would be ‘colossally stupid’ from the UK.
Ireland has also made contingency plans in the event that Article 16 is triggered. The Tánaiste (literally ‘Secondary’, Irish Deputy Prime Minister) said on RTE’s News at One programme that he hoped the UK would not trigger Article 16, “The prime minister spoke about wanting Brexit done but this potentially undoes it – I don’t see how it would be good for us, Great Britain or Northern Ireland”.Ella Lloyd Politics twitter Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.