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Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022

7. What recent discussions she has with EU representatives on the adequacy of the Northern Ireland protocol. (900625)

17. What recent discussions she has had with (a) EU representatives and (b) the US Administration on the Northern Ireland protocol. (900636)

We have been clear with the EU that the Northern Ireland protocol needs to change in order to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, ensure that we have a free flow of goods from east to west, and protect the north-south relationship. Our preference is for a negotiated solution, but in the absence of the EU being willing to change the protocol, we are pressing ahead with legislation.

I am grateful for that reply, but on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill—which, we note with interest, has not yet found a date for its Second Reading—is there any precedent where the United Kingdom has cited the legal concept of necessity for overriding a treaty that it has freely entered into? We should bear in mind that in this case not only did the Government negotiate and sign the Northern Ireland protocol, but the Prime Minister at the time described it as being

“in perfect conformity with the Good Friday agreement”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 583.]

We are clear that our legislation is both necessary and lawful, and have published a Government legal statement laying out exactly why that is. Our priority as the United Kingdom Government is the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we know that the Northern Ireland protocol is undermining that agreement. We have not seen the institutions in Northern Ireland functioning since February, and we know that the issues caused are baked into the protocol—namely the customs provisions and the VAT provisions—so we do need to change that.

As I have said, we remain open to negotiations with the EU. That is our preferred course, but they have to be willing to change the issues that are causing real problems for the people of Northern Ireland.

The business community in Northern Ireland is clear that they want to see mutually agreed solutions, and that those are the only way in which they can protect their access to the EU single market. The key ingredient in all this is trust and partnership. The Minister’s Bill is entirely counterproductive in that respect, so what is her strategy for getting back around the negotiating table with the European Union to find those mutually agreed outcomes?

We are very open to negotiations with the European Union, but they have to be prepared to change the protocol itself. The problems we have with customs and people in Northern Ireland not being able to access the same VAT benefits as people in Great Britain are baked into the protocol itself, and the legislation we have introduced, with green lanes and red lanes, protects the EU single market. It does not make the EU any worse off, while at the same time enabling free-flowing trade from east to west.

We need to achieve both of those things. I want to do so through negotiations, but we have been trying for 18 months; as yet, the EU have refused to change the protocol itself, and we simply cannot allow the situation to drift. We cannot allow more trade diversion, and we cannot allow the undermining of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says about negotiating. We all agree that a negotiated settlement would be the best solution, but there is no point in negotiating with somebody who does not have a mandate to agree with any of the negotiation points being put to them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is up to the European Commission to change the mandate of its negotiator, Commissioner Šefčovič, so we can have those negotiations and come to an agreement, and so that the people of Northern Ireland can live safe and secure in the knowledge that we are coming to an agreement on this issue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want a negotiated solution. We have been part of those negotiations for 18 months, but fundamentally the mandate does not allow for the solutions that will help restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and get rid of the unacceptable frictions that we are seeing in east-west trade. I suggest that Opposition Members direct their calls for negotiations towards the European Union and the goal of securing a new mandate. I think that would be a better use of their time.

The protocol Bill introduced to this House last week breaks international law. It risks the integrity of the Good Friday agreement. It divides the UK and the European Union at a time when we should be pulling together against Putin’s war on our continent, and it risks causing new trade barriers during a cost of living crisis. It is not even enough to get the Democratic Unionist party to commit to return to Stormont. Will the Foreign Secretary now quit posturing for Back Benchers who have lost confidence in the Prime Minister, and get back to the hard work and graft of negotiating a practical way forward?

I am afraid to say that nothing the right hon. Gentleman has just said is accurate. The fact is that our Bill is legal, and we have laid it out in a legal statement. We are putting forward solutions—a green lane and a red lane—that protect the EU single market as well as allowing goods to flow freely around the United Kingdom.

We are very prepared to have those negotiations with the EU, but, at present, we have a negotiating partner that is unwilling to change the issues that are causing the problem in Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman should go to Northern Ireland to see the impact that is having on businesses, hauliers and traders who are facing this customs bureaucracy. It is fundamentally undermining the Good Friday agreement.

I will confess some puzzlement over this. The EU has negotiated a variety of changes to refine the protocol. There are dispute resolution mechanisms within the protocol. There has been a number of opportunities for talks. I have read this idea that the Government need to invoke necessity when there are already other ways of fixing this. That is garbage from start to finish.

In what possible sense can the Government claim that this illegal Bill, which they have brought forward but not scheduled, is a sensible way to resolve the situation when the EU is ready and open for talks? Most people in the Northern Ireland Assembly support the protocol. I counsel the Foreign Secretary that this is also a grievous miscalculation, because it has massively undermined trust at a point when trust is utterly fundamental to resolving this matter.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We have been very open to negotiations for the past 18 months, but the EU has been unwilling to change the protocol. He can read last week’s comments of Vice-President Šefčovič that these customs procedures have to remain in place. The fact is that it is the customs procedures—the bureaucracy—that is preventing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We are seeing trade diversion towards north-south trade and away from east-west trade, and it is undermining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is why it is necessary that the UK Government act. The hon. Gentleman should focus his effort on getting the EU to change its negotiating mandate so that we can have a real negotiation.