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Why is the Northern Ireland Protocol so important?

Harbour in Larne, Northern Ireland

Harbour in Larne, Northern Ireland, © PA Wire / picture alliance

16.06.2022 - Article

The Northern Ireland Protocol regulates trade and prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland, thereby upholding the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement that plays an instrumental role in securing peace. Draft legislation now presented by the UK Government aims to override the Protocol unilaterally.

On Monday (13 June), the UK Government tabled draft legislation in the British Parliament providing for unilateral measures. This bill would suspend large parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom.

Yesterday (13 June), Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock commented as follows on the announcement by the British Government:

With the draft legislation on the Northern Ireland Protocol presented today, London is unilaterally breaching agreements, what is more, the motives behind it are blatant, serving London’s own interests. We cannot accept that in the EU. We will stand united in our response to this breach of trust.

Together with the European Commission, the EU member states will now consider how the EU will respond. The aim of the EU remains an amicable settlement. The EU is united in its rejection of the unilateral steps now planned by the British Government.

Harbour in Belfast 
Harbour in Belfast © PA Wire / picture alliance

EU proposals for pragmatic Protocol implementation on the table for months

In recent months, talks have been held repeatedly between the European Commission and the British side. In October 2021, the European Commission presented comprehensive and pragmatic proposals on how to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol in flexible fashion to deal with the current practical difficulties regarding trade between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.

Foreign Minister Baerbock issued the following statement yesterday (13 June):

We, the EU, have put concrete proposals on the table always focusing on the people and businesses benefitting from the EU internal market on a daily basis. And on upholding the Good Friday Agreement. Peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland are not pawns.

What happens next?

It is currently unclear when the draft legislation could pass through the UK Parliament and enter into force – readings in the House of Commons and the House of Lords are pending.

The European Commission Vice-President responsible for EU-UK relations, Maroš Šefčovič, has announced that the EU will launch legal proceedings against London. As a first step the infringement proceedings against the United Kingdom that began in March 2021 and had since been put on hold will now be continued. Other suspected breaches of the Northern Ireland Protocol by the British Government are the subject of two new infringement proceedings. Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič reiterated that compliance with the Northern Ireland Protocol is a prerequisite for trade relations and cooperation between the EU and the UK in many fields. The two sides had resolved the issues in question in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that entered into force in May 2021. Should the draft legislation be approved, the EU reserves the right to take further steps.

The Northern Ireland Protocol as an anchor of stability for the island of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Protocol attached to the Withdrawal Agreement is a key component of the contractual agreement concluded by the EU and the United Kingdom in February 2020 to implement Brexit, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Following lengthy and arduous negotiations, the Northern Ireland Protocol is the document the two sides together agreed on to comply with the wish of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the EU internal market and customs union on the one hand and to guarantee the EU internal market remains protected on the other – what is more, without a hard border between Northern Ireland and the EU member state Ireland. The open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was key to the success of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement that brought an end to the Northern Ireland conflict in 1998.

With this very much in mind, the Northern Ireland Protocol grants Northern Ireland special status and ensures it remains in the EU internal market for goods. Goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain are subject to checks to ensure they comply with EU standards before entering the country.

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