The Government has published a series of measures to buy time for them to work out how to implement Brexit in Northern Ireland whilst reconciling the conflicting principles of: the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ and its ‘Protocol’ signed in 2019; and the province remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom.
The Protocol protects the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions: maintaining peace, stability and prosperity on the island of Ireland. It is overseen by the ‘EU-UK Joint Committee’, co-chaired by European Commission Vice-President, Maroš Šefčovič, and the UK Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove MP.
The UK Government introduced two Bills to Parliament: The ‘UK Internal Market’ Bill and, last week, the ‘Taxation (Northern Ireland)’ Bill. Each of these Bills included clauses that aimed to keep Northern Ireland a part of the UK – but at the cost of breaching the Withdrawal Agreement. These Bills have faced opposition in Parliament – with the House of Lords voting strongly against them. More widely, the EU negotiations on a future trade deal were jeopardised, and President-elect, Joe Biden, stated that they would preclude a future trade deal between UK and USA.
On Thursday, the UK Government decided not to proceed with the contentious clauses in the Bills and accepted as “essential” that the Withdrawal Agreement – in particular the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland – should be “fully operational on 1 January 2021” – the end of the Brexit transition period.
The UK and EU reached an “agreement in principle” on: Border Control Posts/Entry Points – specifically for checks on animals, plants and derived products; export declarations; the supply of medicines; the supply of chilled meats and other food products to ‘supermarkets’; and a clarification on the application of State aid under the terms of the Protocol.
Since then a series of detailed guidelines on these temporary ‘easements’ and ‘grace periods’ have been published on the Gov.UK website.
The UK and EU also reached an “agreement in principle” with respect to the decisions the Joint Committee has to take before 1 January 2021. In particular, this concerns the practical arrangements regarding the EU’s oversight of Northern Ireland remaining part of the EU ‘customs union’ as UK authorities: begin to implement checks and controls under the Protocol; determine criteria for goods to be considered “not at risk” of entering the EU when moving from GB to Northern Ireland; the exemption of agricultural and fish subsidies from State aid rules; and the finalisation of the list of chairpersons of the arbitration panel for the dispute settlement mechanism.
On 9 December, Michael Gove informed Parliament that the Government will withdraw clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the UK Internal Market Bill, and will not introduce any similar provisions in the Taxation Bill.
The moves come as the European Commission tiggered its ‘contingency plans for Brexit no-deal’ – warning that the risk of an agreement not being reached is now “significant”.
On 10 December, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, offered an emergency package of measures designed to soften the landing from a cliff-edge no-deal end to Brexit.
Extracts from the European Commission statement:
“Readiness and preparedness for 1 January 2021 is now more important than ever.
Disruption will happen with or without an agreement between the EU and the UK on their future relationship.
This is the natural consequence of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the Union and to no longer participate in the EU Single Market and Customs Union.
The Commission has always been very clear about this.”
While a ‘no-deal’ scenario will cause disruptions in many areas, some sectors would be disproportionately affected due to a lack of appropriate fall-back solutions and because in some sectors, stakeholders cannot themselves take mitigating measures. The Commission is therefore putting forward today four contingency measures to mitigate some of the significant disruptions that will occur on 1 January in case a deal with the UK is not yet in place:
Basic air connectivity: A proposal for a Regulation to ensure the provision of certain air services between the UK and the EU for 6 months, provided the UK ensures the same.
Aviation safety: A proposal for a Regulation ensuring that various safety certificates for products can continue to be used in EU aircraft without disruption, thereby avoiding the grounding of EU aircraft.
Basic road connectivity: A proposal for a Regulation covering basic connectivity with regard to both road freight, and road passenger transport for 6 months, provided the UK assures the same to EU hauliers.
Fisheries: A proposal for a Regulation to create the appropriate legal framework until 31 December 2021, or until a fisheries agreement with the UK has been concluded – whichever date is earlier – for continued reciprocal access by EU and UK vessels to each other’s waters after 31 December 2020. In order to guarantee the sustainability of fisheries and in light of the importance of fisheries for the economic livelihood of many communities, it is necessary to facilitate the procedures of authorisation of fishing vessels.
The Commission will work closely with the European Parliament and Council with a view to facilitate entry into application on 1 January 2021 of all four proposed Regulations.”