Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has played down the prospect of triggering article 16 and acknowledged Britain is legally obliged to carry out checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. He told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster the checks demanded by the Northern Ireland protocol are “legal requirements” and it was right they were continuing despite threats by DUP Ministers to halt them.
“Of course, even taking those away doesn’t necessarily in and of itself even solve some of the issues that businesses are having,” he said.
He said the reason Britain did not trigger article 16 was because the government was committed to reaching an agreement with the European Commission, adding that “Article 16 doesn’t scrap the protocol.”
Mr Lewis is not directly involved in the protocol negotiations which are led by foreign secretary Liz Truss and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic. He said he believed Mr Sefcovic was eager to reach a deal but that he was hamstrung by negotiating red lines set out by EU leaders.
“I think he is someone who is pragmatic, he would like to try to find a way through this. But he is trying to work within a mandate and I think there is a real issue that the mandate from his point of view may not give him the flexibility to find a way through this so far,” he said.
‘Pragmatism and flexibility’
“I have not seen the sort of flexibility from the EU that I would have expected to see. I have not seen the sort of pragmatism and flexibility that would allow us to agree a deal. Otherwise we would have agreed one by now.”
Describing the protocol as unsustainable, Mr Lewis said it was not working for business and 200 companies in Great Britain were no longer shipping goods to Northern Ireland. The committee’s chairman, Simon Hoare, pointed out that trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland had increased since the protocol came into force.
Mr Lewis defended his government’s decision to renege on the protocol it had itself negotiated, which he said was undermining the Belfast Agreement.
“The reality is that, as politicians, we are elected to serve our constituents and it is very clear that the protocol in its current format and the implementation of it that the EU are seeking doesn’t work for the people of Northern Ireland. It’s fundamentally undermining the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement both in terms of North-South ministerial councils, east-west trade and the Stormont institution itself,” he said.
In a separate committee hearing at Westminster on Monday, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak admitted Brexit was causing problems for British businesses which trade with Europe. The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), an independent fiscal watchdog, said last week that trade as a share of the economy had fallen in Britain by 2½ times more than any other major industrialised country.
“It was always inevitable that there would be a change in our trade intensity with Europe as a result of the change in trading relationship,” Mr Sunak said.
“Without a doubt we are changing out trading relationship with the EU and that means a different set of controls and things that people will have to do. Obviously that will have an impact and I’m sure that’s a big part of the reason this is happening. It may just be a bit early to be definitive about which bits are doing what.”