Strangely, Brexit crux over the North can be fixed – but not until trust between the EU and UK is built again

John Downing

Liz Truss has rattled another UK sabre in the Brexit battle – or maybe that should be another step in her campaign to oust and replace Boris Johnson as prime minister.

Once more the messed-up English Conservative politics – and we mean English, not British – have driven Brexit to where it has been since the referendum in June 2016, on the cliff edge of a trade conflict that will wreck lives in these islands.

We are back in the dreary days of 2016-2020 when political chaos in Britain made the country’s politicians completely ill-equipped to face their biggest challenge since 1945. It is not encouraging to ponder how people in Ireland, north and south, as well as those in Scotland, Wales and England, are held hostage to political dysfunction among the English ruling classes.

But work must continue to overcome or transcend that grim reality. That urgent realpolitik again begs the question: Can this six-year-old mess be fixed? And what would such a fix look like?

The UK government has stoked yet another major Brexit row, announcing it will introduce legislation to unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The EU reacted with predictable anger after UK foreign minister Liz Truss laid out plans to junk parts of the agreement to ease the flow of goods between England, Scotland and Wales and the North. London claims the way the North’s special trade status is operated, the so-called protocol, undermines the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The protocol avoids a hard border in Ireland by ensuring goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland follow the rules of the EU single market. The UK government and Northern unionists say this creates an unacceptable border in the Irish Sea, dividing the United Kingdom.

They want fundamental changes to internationally-binding legal deals, signed by London with the EU in 2019 and 2020, to allow a big relaxation of border checks, especially on food.

A clue to potential remedies lies in London’s acceptance that goods destined for the Republic must be subject to full checks. But it wants a reversal of “burden of proof”, accepting the assumption that most goods going from Britain to the North will stay there – unless it is proved such goods are heading for the Republic and in reality into the EU single market.

The argument implies a so-called “trusted trader” scheme for firms would involve very light and/or no checks. A scheme of spot-checks would mean any violation of this kind of trust would have severe long-term consequences.

In principle, this is a reasonable and workable regime – provided both sides show good faith in ongoing talks. There is a strong vibe that processes need to be simplified and slimmed down. But right now, trust is so scarce it verges on non-existent.

Brussels officials accept there is room to improve how the current regime applies – but there are limits.

A Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce poll found that, during the first three months of this year, 55pc of businesses said Brexit had increased business costs while 43pc said the protocol itself had increased costs. But it has also provided opportunities for businesses in Northern Ireland, with some British firms moving operations to the North. It has also boosted cross-Border trade here.

Across the board, business groups have urged the two sides to come to a negotiated compromise. A disastrous trade war remains a distant but still realistic prospect. There is scope for the EU to reduce the burden of checks while still maintaining the integrity of its single market for goods, which took member states 40 years to build.

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