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Dreary steeples of North protocol set to emerge again after summer news stories subside

London Letter: Frost avoids using the word renegotiation and stresses desire for agreed solution

As MPs prepare to return to Westminster next week, they are preoccupied with the fallout from the western powers' withdrawal from Afghanistan and fears of a resurgence in coronavirus as schools reopen.

But as the deluge of summer news stories subsides they will see emerging once again the dreary steeples of the Northern Ireland protocol and UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to wriggle out of it.

Before the summer break, Brexit minister David Frost published a command paper calling for a wholesale rewriting of the protocol to eliminate most checks and formalities for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, dramatically reduce safety checks on agri-food products and replace the oversight role of EU institutions with an international arbitration system.

The paper called for a standstill period during which grace periods that have delayed the introduction of some of the protocol's measures would be extended and the EU would pause legal action against Britain for earlier breaches of the agreement. Frost stopped short of unilaterally suspending parts of the protocol by triggering Article 16 and has not notified the European Commission that he is considering such action, as he is required to under the agreement.


Before the summer break, Downing Street was confident that the strength of bilateral relationships with Paris and Berlin would dampen the EU's appetite for a conflict over the protocol

The commission has not responded formally to the British proposals and although officials continued to meet during August, neither side has reported progress. Frost did not set a target date for reaching an agreement but there is a de facto deadline at the end of September when some grace periods will expire.

If the EU does not agree to extend the grace periods, chilled meats such as sausages will not be permitted to move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said in Newry on Thursday that he would not object to extending the grace periods but that a delay would not solve the "underlying difficulties" that have made the protocol unpopular among unionists.

Johnson’s true purpose in calling for such a comprehensive dismantling of the protocol remains unclear and there have been mixed signals from his government and from within Downing Street itself. The prime minister’s closest advisers say he takes a harder line on the protocol than any of his ministers, including Frost, who has been careful in the language he uses about the proposals.

Frost has avoided using the word renegotiation and he has stressed that Britain is seeking an agreed solution rather than threatening unilateral action. Some figures close to Frost and Johnson have suggested in private that Britain would be content to allow the status quo to persist indefinitely as endless negotiations turn the issue of the protocol into a kind of frozen conflict like Russia's dispute with Moldova over Transnistria.

The best Britain can hope for by the end of September is an agreement to extend the grace periods

Other senior Downing Street figures insist that Johnson, who feels guilty about his betrayal of unionists over the protocol, will stop at nothing to defang it – even if the dispute spills over into a trade war with the EU.

Before the summer break, Downing Street was confident that the strength of bilateral relationships with Paris and Berlin would dampen the EU’s appetite for a conflict over the protocol. And officials were dismissive of the risk of Washington wading into the dispute because Britain was such a valuable ally in so many other areas. Both of these calculations look more dubious today.

The evacuation from Afghanistan has strained London's relationship with Washington to the point where Johnson's government has been briefing that Joe Biden was "gaga" and "doolally" and reports that Johnson referred to the president as "Sleepy Joe" and remarked that "we would be better off with Trump".

These comments have been reported in the US media, including the Washington Post so they will not have escaped a White House that has long had its doubts about the British prime minister.

Downing Street is probably correct in its conclusion that there is little appetite in European capitals for a standoff with Britain over the protocol. But there is none at all for reopening the text of the agreement and Johnson’s standing among European leaders is such that none of them feels any obligation to accommodate him.

The best Britain can hope for by the end of September is an agreement to extend the grace periods, probably on condition that London will take specific steps towards fulfilling obligations such as sharing data about goods movements. The EU could agree to consider further easements to make the protocol less intrusive for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland and even to attach a clarifying, interpretive instrument to the text that would reassure concerns about sovereignty.

If that is not enough to avoid a breakdown in the talks and a full scale confrontation, Johnson should not depend on the Europeans lacking the stomach for a fight. As a senior diplomat from one of the most Anglophile member states pointed out to me recently, Brussels is still smarting from diplomatic humiliations at the hands of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“They won’t want to be humiliated by Johnson,” he said. “They might feel like doing some humiliating themselves.”