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A frosty relationship
Sensemaker Audio

A frosty relationship

A frosty relationship

The UK has left the European Union. Why is trying now to renegotiate the way it left?

Transcript

Nimo Omer: Hi I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story everyday to make sense of the world.

Today, why the government is threatening to rip up a key part of the Brexit agreement. 

***

Remember this?

“And what I can tell you is that with the deal that we have, we can come out as one whole UK, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, together, we can do free trade deals together…”

Boris Johnson speaking in December 2019

That was Boris Johnson telling us we had a deal on Brexit. But less than a year after that deal came into effect, we’re here…

“Put very simply, we can’t go on as we are…”

David Frost speaking in the House of Lords

That’s David Frost speaking.

“… my Lords there is no doubt that we have tried to operate the protocol in good faith.”

David Frost speaking in the House of Lords

There’s a chance you’re familiar with his name. He’s the former Chief Brexit negotiator and some would say, still the de facto Brexit secretary. 

That’s because he’s Boris Johnson’s attack dog for UK and EU negotiations.

And he’s come a long way since 2016 when he told the Scotch Whisky Association that it was in our interest to be in the European single market… and I quote, “Why would we want to depart from that?”

But this week, David Frost bared his teeth in Lisbon, in Portugal, in a speech which demanded changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. He had no hesitation in biting at the heels of the EU.

“The protocol is not working. It’s completely lost consent.”

David Frost speaking in Lisbon

And the changes he’s called for were designed to draw blood.

“The fundamental difficulty is that we’re being asked to run a full scale external boundary of the EU through the centre of our country, to apply EU law without consent…”

David Frost speaking in Lisbon

After delivering his speech, David Frost reportedly presented some new legal text to Brussels, insisting that the Northern Ireland Protocol needs to be renegotiated. But the Protocol is at the heart of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

It was only 10 months ago that the original treaty was agreed, smiles and all, by both sides. 

And although he was no longer in his position by the time it was signed, as a leading negotiator, David Frost’s fingerprints are all over the protocol. 

So the question is, what’s going on? And why does the government want to change something to which it had only just agreed?

***

Last December, the Northern Ireland Protocol was finally agreed as part of the agreement resulting in the UK’s departure from the EU.

Now you might remember that Northern Ireland had long been the sticking point in Brexit negotiations. It’s the one part of the UK that has a border with the EU but it couldn’t have a conventional hard border because of the Good Friday Agreement, the historic agreement which did so much to bring an end to The Troubles, the conflict that consumed Northern Ireland since the late 1960s.  

“We should say this is a moment of significance, isn’t it? An agreement in principle on that rather thorny issue of the Irish border…””

Sky News

And so the purpose of the Protocol was to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland because of changes to the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. And it also aimed to protect the EU’s single market by making sure that only goods which met their standards crossed the border. 

Remember hearing about the “sausage war”? Well goods like sausages, other cold meats and medicines were put in limbo. And so it was agreed that Northern Ireland would align with around 300 pieces of EU law to meet those standards. 

But when it all came into force in January, it quickly became impractical for lots of traders like Fergus Howie, a British pork producer.

“Whether you’re a Scottish potato farmer trying to get seed potatoes into Northern Ireland, or whether you’re a processor of fresh meat, it’s madness that we can’t supply one part of the United Kingdom with another part of the United Kingdom.”

Fergus Howie speaking to Channel 4 News

Suddenly a lot more paperwork was needed, there were moments of empty supermarket shelves in the likes of Belfast, and more than 2,000 medicines were put on notice to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland. 

The Protocol had created a border down the Irish Sea, between one part of the UK and another. 

But David Frost had an even bigger bugbear… 

“Brexit was about re-establishing control, as far as possible, over our laws and our own rules.”

David Frost speaking in the House of Lords

Because Northern Ireland was still technically in the single market, the European Court of Justice, or ECJ, still acted as the referee. The EU could hold sway over part of the UK. 

For Frost, that was unacceptable. For him, the ECJ was a red line.

So what does the EU make of it all?

***

“Is this agreement working? I think that even now the EU agrees there are aspects of this agreement that are not working, that’s a big shift…”

Bernard Jenkin speaking on Newsnight

On Wednesday, the EU set out proposals, which it calls “far reaching”, to reduce checks on goods and medicines moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.

A unique deal on agriculture and food processing could now be struck.

And as for those British bangers that have been banned since January? It looks like they could be sold in Northern Ireland again.

So, potentially good news for some. 

But David Frost isn’t getting exactly what he asked for.

“Surely the message must go out to all countries around the world that this is a British government that doesn’t necessarily keep its word. Doesn’t necessarily honour the agreements it makes, and you shouldn’t make any agreement with them until such a time as you’re confident that they keep their promises, and honour things for example like the protocol.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Deputy Premier speaking on RTE News

Singing deals knowing that you’re probably going to renegotiate later isn’t going to give a good reputation for Britain. 

The EU has said these changes will take place within the existing framework so, under the current protocol, and that means, under the ECJ. David Frost says the Protocol was originally signed in a rush but Boris Johnson told the country it was the right agreement.

It’s clear that both sides recognise the current arrangement isn’t working but do we definitively know what will replace it? Watch this space.  

Today’s episode was written and produced by Imy Harper.