Steve Baker wants to renegotiate the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland | Brexit

Written by

The Northern Ireland minister, Steve Baker, is proposing to reopen Brexit trade deal David Frost struck with the EU as a means of solving the problems caused by the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol.

The suggestions come as Rishi Sunak moved to put down a rebellion in the Conservative Party over suggestions that Downing Street was considering a Swiss-style relationship with the EU to ease wider trade barriers for food and agricultural products.

In a confidential paper circulating in the Northern Ireland Office, Baker outlines potential ways to remove the role of the European Court of Justice in disputes, something both unionists and the Eurosceptic European Research Group are calling for.

The proposals essentially repeat a sequencing argument that Britain lost in 2017 while the Conservative Party was in disarray over whether to stay in the EU’s customs union and single market.

Failing to get the necessary commitment from Theresa May, the EU decided that the Northern Ireland Protocol should be placed in the legally binding withdrawal agreement and not the trade agreement.

In the paper, Baker suggests reversing this sequence in retrospect to end the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He proposes updating the trade agreement by adding a “customs cooperation chapter” and amending the protocol to include a dispute mechanism that does not involve the European Court of Justice.

But experts say it can be an insurmountable challenge.

“All of this is theoretically possible, but whether the EU will agree to it is another question,” said Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at Cambridge University and deputy UK director of the Changing Europe think tank.

She said the EU has “taken a very strong line” that the CJEU must have a role in the protocol if Northern Ireland is to remain in a halfway house – following both UK and EU rules on trade.

Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said it was difficult to see the EU revisiting deals that took four tumultuous years of negotiations.

“The terms of trade between the UK and the EU directly affect the challenges for Northern Ireland post-Brexit, caught as it is between the UK and Ireland. So recognition that the TCA has implications for the operation of the Protocol is welcome. But if [vice-president of the European Commission Maroš] Šefčovič does not have the mandate to rewrite the withdrawal agreement to fix the protocol, he certainly does not have one to revise the TCA either.

“Although in both agreements there is the possibility of adjustment by mutual decision between Šefčovič and [UK foreign secretary James] Smart, it would not be enough to make significant changes or add new chapters,” Hayward said.

But Baker has argued that while it is a “narrow and steep” road, the political will to find a solution to the Northern Ireland Brexit issue is there as US President Joe Biden, the EU, Ireland and the British governments have expressed their determination to find a negotiated solution before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast next April.

Under current arrangements, companies shipping goods from the UK to Northern Ireland must comply with EU customs and standards laws and regulations.

The EU has proposed a light-touch express lane for goods that remain in Northern Ireland, such as sausages, ready meals and horticultural products including seed potatoes and trees for supermarkets and garden and farm sites.

The UK has called for a similar system of “green lanes” for lorries loaded with goods bound for Northern Ireland and “red lanes” for those with goods destined for Ireland and the EU.

Šefčovič has recently said that this system will reduce checks to a few trucks a day.

Last year, Šefčovič said one Trade event in Swiss style would get rid of 80% of controls as it would mean food and farming standards in the UK were legally aligned with the UK.

But Altar pushed back on reports that he was now considering this as an option on the wider UK-EU stage, saying earlier this week that having “regulatory freedom” to deviate from EU standards was a key advantage, insisting that it would not be sacrificed in future negotiations.

About the author

Leave a Comment