Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
The EU’s position on the Northern Ireland Protocol is based on a lie. Not a little fib, either, but a stinking whopper. Its stated justifications for the Protocol are very far from its actual motives. This point is easy to demonstrate. Indeed, it would be uncontroversial but for the bizarre culture war here which, fully six years after the referendum, still leaves a tribe of commentators always blaming Britain and never Brussels.
The lie is as follows. The EU publicly maintains that its sole concern is for what it calls “the integrity of the Single Market”. If so much as a single British pork pie were to cross into Co Cavan, it insists, the Customs Union would be prejudiced and its common rules made worthless. Eurocrats have repeated this assertion so often that I think even they have, on some level, come to believe it. Naturally their British devotees, who allow no criticism of European institutions, treat the claim as Holy Writ.
Yet every time some sententious British Europhile starts chuntering about “protecting the Single Market” or “the need for border checks somewhere”, plumes of smoke rise from his pants. The Protocol has nothing to do with these things.
Its real purposes are never publicly stated, but they can be clearly inferred. It is designed to divert Northern Ireland’s trade from Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland, so strengthening the case for a 32-county republic; to prevent the UK from gaining any commercial or competitive advantage over the EU; and, more generally, to give us a kicking for Brexit.
How can I be so sure? Because there is no other way to interpret the EU’s response to Liz Truss’s proposed amendments to the Protocol. At no stage has it identified, or tried to identify, how they would cause it the slightest harm. If its real concerns were its stated concerns, it would have no problem with accepting them. But it can’t do so without prejudicing its actual goals.
Consider what the UK is asking for. First, a “green channel” for goods whose destination is local, coupled with real-time access to the EU on all goods movements. Second, the right for firms in Northern Ireland that do not export their products to follow either UK or EU regulations. Third, no taxation without representation – in other words, the right for Britain to set its own VAT and corporation tax rates, subject to the level playing field clauses in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Fourth, arbitration by a neutral tribunal, in common with every other international accord.
These requests are eye-wateringly moderate. There is no way that they can harm the EU, and Eurocrats are not seriously suggesting otherwise. All their talk of “but you signed it” covers their inability to point to any actual danger to their interests. Even if we take seriously the claim about pork pies crossing into Co Cavan, that eventuality would be no more likely under the new arrangements than now. That is not to say that it is completely unthinkable – there is always the possibility that someone might carry food across – but that possibility exists today.
Nor can the EU credibly argue that the provisions it put in place for UK-EU trade through the TCA are good enough for everything except that negligible trickle that crosses the Irish border. The TCA, remember, contains reams of detail about state aid, competition, and environmental protection, as well as an arbitration system comparable to those in other treaties.
What, then, is the EU’s problem with Truss’s proposals? Why, as the world slides into economic crisis, is it contemplating the idea of a trade war? Why, even as Ukraine battles for its independence, do some European leaders portray Boris Johnson, rather than Vladimir Putin, as the main threat their continent faces? Contrast, for example, Emmanuel Macron’s statements about the UK (“Nothing is negotiable, everything is applicable”) with his statements about Russia (“We must never cede to the temptation of humiliation, nor to a spirit of revenge”).
The truth is that the EU positively wants the Protocol to cause Britain difficulties. It likes the fact that the arrangements scratch and chafe. It delights in carrying out 20 per cent of all the checks on goods entering the single market on the less than half of one per cent of goods doing so across the Irish Sea. It takes huge satisfaction in the 50 per cent increase in trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as suppliers avoid excessive bureaucracy. It revels in the fact that the ECJ is the ultimate arbiter – a sign of its continuing suzerainty over part of the UK and a way to taunt Brexiteers. As an EU official was caught saying on camera in 2019, “We finally turned them into a colony, and that was our plan from the first moment.”
Britain could theoretically respond by matching the EU’s obstreperousness. It could simply say: “We are leaving these arrangements but, as a courtesy to our friends in Ireland, we shall put up no border infrastructure. What you do on your side is your business.”
But it is not doing that. From the beginning, it was the EU that insisted a border was necessary to protect its Single Market (the UK is relaxed about “leakage” the other way). The row is, and has always been, about how far Britain should go to make the EU’s problem its own. Britain has bent over backwards to accommodate its neighbour, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new customs systems to enable the EU to keep the border open and hoping that, in time, the EU’s grumpiness about Brexit would subside.
It hasn’t. And it is becoming clear that it won’t. The extraordinary situation created by the Benn Act after the 2017 election – a majority of British MPs saying that they would not leave except on terms that Brussels liked – gave the EU an unexpected advantage, which it seized. It has no intention of relinquishing that advantage now.