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Sensemaker: The protocol stand-off

Sensemaker: The protocol stand-off

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A man used a bow and arrows to kill and injure several people in Kongsberg, Norway, before he was arrested.
  • Emmanuel Macron unveiled a €30 billion five-year plan to reboot French tech and compete with China as a builder of small modular nuclear reactors. 
  • Scientists identified traces of blue cheese and beer in 2,700 year-old samples of human excrement found in a salt mine in the Austrian Alps.

The protocol stand-off

The EU has responded to Britain’s demand for a rewrite of the Northern Ireland protocol that was supposed to solve the thorniest problem in all of Brexit. Privately, at least, Brussels’ proposals were well-received in London. Whether they’re enough to prevent a rerun of old Brexit arguments to Christmas and beyond is another matter.

The proposals include:

  • Removing physical checks for 80 per cent of products of animal origin entering Northern Ireland from Britain;
  • Cutting the administrative burden on Northern Ireland importers by half;
  • Exempting more products and firms from customs tariffs by widening trusted trader arrangements; 
  • Changing laws on the movement of medicines across the Irish Sea; and
  • Better communication with politicians and businesses in Northern Ireland.

The catch. The proposals don’t include anything on oversight of the protocol by the European Court of Justice. The EU says this is non-negotiable but the UK now says it’s unacceptable even though it signed off on it last year. Number 10 called yesterday for a “rapidly conducted” round of intensive talks, adding that changing the protocol’s governance was “fundamental”. The Irish foreign minister had said that removing the ECJ’s oversight role was a red line for the EU.

A compromise is available. Switzerland has an oversight mechanism beneath the ECJ in its trade relationship with the EU, which tries to resolve disputes before they go to EU judges. It may work in this context and it may be something that Britain and the EU can discuss in the coming weeks.

Why weren’t the EU’s proposals offered earlier? It’s a fair question but there are plenty of reasons. For instance:

  • There was no formal demand to reopen the protocol until the UK’s minister for EU relations, David Frost, gave a speech in Lisbon on Tuesday.
  • The EU is serious about preserving the integrity of its single market, which the UK accepts must mean checks of some sort on goods entering the market from third countries.
  • EU negotiators had reason to believe concessions in the original 2019 talks would simply be pocketed by the UK side as a prelude to more demands, as Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government noted at a Tortoise ThinkIn on Tuesday. 
  • Reports of empty shelves and simmering crisis in Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol are exaggerated, Matthew O’Toole of the Irish Social Democratic and Labour Party argued at the same event. He said protest is mild and shortages are being remedied by deliveries from the south.

So why is Brexit back on the drawing board? A trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”, Liam Fox, Britain’s international trade secretary at the time, said in 2017. “The only reason we wouldn’t come to a free and open agreement is because politics gets in the way of economics.” The only reason came to pass. 

The point of the Northern Ireland protocol was to keep the province in the EU customs union and some of the single market to avoid creating a hard border with the Irish Republic. The fear was that such a border might jeopardise the peace process.

Frost agreed to the protocol but now says it’s created a new trade border with Britain. It has certainly upset unionists who feel they’re being severed from Britain. It is also a politically convenient point of contention for a UK government wrestling with supply chain bottlenecks and inclined to deflect blame. 

Was this the plan all along? Another fair question. Last night Ian Paisley Jr of the Democratic Unionist Party told Newsnight: “Boris Johnson did tell me personally … after agreeing to the protocol, he would sign up to changing that protocol and indeed tearing it up.”

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Channel immunity 

Priti Patel is seeking immunity for border force agents if refugees die during new “turnback” measures in the Channel. The smallprint of the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently in parliament, says “a relevant officer is not liable in any criminal or civil proceedings” if they can prove they acted “in good faith” and there were “reasonable grounds” for what they did. 18,761 migrants have reached the UK so far this year, double the number in 2020. The government says its new plans for immigration will comply with human rights and refugee conventions, even though the UN’s maritime law requires every state to “render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost”. Well over a thousand migrants died attempting to reach Europe in the first six months of 2021. The UN’s migration organisation said a main factor was a lack of “proactive, European, state-led search and rescue operations in international waters”. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Blue fist
Facebook moved towards a more stringent moderation of terrorism and extremism after the power of its platform to incite violence became apparent in situations like the Myanmar genocide. That developed into a Dangerous Individuals and Organizations (DIO) policy, built around a blacklist of over 4,000 banned individuals and groups. Until now that list has been hidden, despite calls for transparency from the Facebook Oversight Board. But the Intercept has leaked a snapshot of who is targeted. Unsurprisingly, it’s a skewed list. Analysis by experts found the DIO policy is more generous to white anti-government militia than it is to Middle Eastern and South Asian terrorist groups, or violent criminal groups who are largely Black or Latin American. The CIA says it is domestic extremists “galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States” (including Covid restrictions and narratives of election fraud) who present “the most lethal [domestic violent extremist] threat” to the country right now.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

The World Health Organization established a new task force called Sago, the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens. It tasked the group’s 26 experts with considering whether Covid jumped from animals to humans in Wuhan food markets or leaked out of a lab there. China strongly refutes the second theory, but has hampered any serious investigative effort to test it. The WHO’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said “a lab accident cannot be ruled out”. His emergencies director, Michael Ryan, said Sago may be the “last chance to understand the origins of this virus”. But China has been refusing re-entry to international scientists to study Covid and it’s not clear why it will suddenly clear the way for Sago. As Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the United Nations said, “It is time to send teams to other places”.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Bolsonaro in the ICC
Brazil’s leader Jair Bolsonaro was accused of crimes against humanity by an environmental law organisation that filed an official complaint at the Hague’s International Criminal Court (ICC). Deforestation in the Amazon has reached its highest level in a decade, with an area nearly seven times the size of London lost between August 2020 and July 2021. The ICC lawsuit argued that emissions attributable to Bolsonaro’s presidency will indirectly cause over 180,000 excess health-related deaths this century. One of the places Amazon land has been sold is Facebook Marketplace. The site announced on Friday it would ban the listing of “land in ecological conservation areas”, but it’s taken far too long. A BBC documentary revealed the unusual trade back in February – that is eight months ago, a lot of time in environmental terms. We’ll be at Cop 26 next month, discussing who should pay to save the rainforest.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Jack is back?
Alibaba Group’s founder Jack Ma has been out for meals with business associates in Hong Kong, sources tell Reuters. A billionaire executive on a working lunch may not be news to some, but it marks the first time Ma has been seen in Hong Kong since Xi Jingping led a crackdown on his company a year ago. Last October, Ma’s inflammatory speech to a room of finance and political leaders in Shanghai led to the cancellation of Alibaba’s $37 billion IPO, which would have been the largest in the world. Since then the previously outspoken Ma has been keeping a low profile, but it looks like he is working his way into the Chinese Communist Party’s good books again. In September Alibaba said it would invest $15.5 billion into Xi’s wealth sharing initiative to support “common prosperity” in the country. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Phoebe Davis

With additional reporting by Jacob Wood.

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Xavier Greenwood.

Photographs Getty Images