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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Effect of Renegotiation on Other Trade Negotiations

Volume 815: debated on Thursday 21 October 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the diplomatic consequences for (1) current, and (2) future, trade negotiations, of their decision to seek to renegotiate the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Government are implementing a successful programme of trade negotiations around the world. Agreement in principle was announced with New Zealand overnight, and we have already reached agreement in principle with Australia. In both cases, these are hugely beneficial free trade agreements to both parties. We do not believe that our efforts to resolve the difficulties arising from the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland will have any diplomatic consequences for our FTA negotiations programme.

That really sounds like wishful thinking. We have heard about New Zealand, and indeed I think the noble Lord was in his place at the time. We have applied to the CPTPP and we have the Australia deal. Can he really think that his willingness to tear up an agreement that he negotiated and the Prime Minister signed—in good faith, we assume—just two years ago will help the work of his fellow Ministers as they negotiate delicate deals with other countries around the world regarding the likelihood that we will hold to any agreement that we sign?

My Lords, no one is speaking of tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol. We have made very clear that our wish is to negotiate a new version of the protocol with a new balance, and to do so consensually. That is not unusual in international relations, and there are plenty of examples that one could give. On the FTA question, look at the facts: we negotiated 60-plus free trade agreements last year before withdrawal; we have a huge programme of negotiations going on; and I am sure that they will come to good and beneficial results.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in any trade negotiation, trust is important and that, having signed agreements, it is important for the UK to maintain that trust? Does he agree that, in almost all cases, the free trade agreements agreed thus far do not require us to remove regulations that we already have? Would it be possible for the UK to commit to a period until, let us say, 2024 or 2025 for maintaining our regulations in order to rebuild trust and work out a solution that can demonstrate the UK’s good faith in trying to identify a new resolution for Northern Ireland?

My Lords, as I have said on previous occasions, the question of trust is important and it takes two sides to create trust. As I set out in the speech in Lisbon to which the noble Baroness previously referred, there are a number of things that the EU has done that have not necessarily been conducive to building trust either, but we need to move on from that and generate new momentum to try to reach agreement on a revised protocol. On the question of SPS regulations, the difficulty is that free trade agreements are not the only reason why you might wish to evolve your own agri-food regulations, and indeed the EU has evolved its own autonomously since the start of 2021. Where there is divergence it is for that reason, not because of anything that we have done.

My Lords, 24 committees and groups were set up under the trade and co-operation agreement. Have all 24 now met and can they be considered fully operational?

My Lords, they have not all met yet, although they have largely met. I think four of these committees still have to meet this year, then the trade partnership committee, and then we hope for another meeting of the Partnership Council before the end of the year. The agendas for specialised committees are published on GOV.UK for those who are interested. So the programme has well begun and we expect to complete a full round by the end of the year.

My Lords, can anyone trust this Government on international legal matters? They have already admitted to breaching international law again on Northern Ireland. Now they have failed to honour a protocol that they freely entered into, and they threaten to breach our clear obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Is this cavalier attitude to international legal obligations likely to be a positive or a negative feature in relation to our future partners?

My Lords, I am afraid I do not entirely agree with the suggestion that we have been cavalier about our obligations under the protocol. Unfortunately, the problems that exist in Northern Ireland are the problems of implementation of the protocol, not of non-implementation of it. We have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on setting up services to help British businesses to trade with Northern Ireland, but unfortunately that has not solved the underlying difficulties. So implementation is not the solution; renegotiation and a better solution is.

My Lords, in his speech in Portugal the Minister said that the Government are

“constantly faced with generalised accusations”

that they

“can’t be trusted and are not a reasonable international actor.”

When I asked him last time that he was at the Dispatch Box why this might be the case, he said that was a question that he constantly asked himself. I wonder whether this constant process of self-reflection has produced a clearer answer than the one that he was able to give me at that point.

My Lords, I like to think that I engage in a constant process of self-reflection. I am reassured that it usually reaches the same result, which is that when I look at the way that this Government have acted on the international stage since Brexit was established, the role that we have played in the world, the establishment of AUKUS and our position on issues to do with China and many other issues, I think we stand as a constructive and fully responsible international player.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is internationally recognised that the UK is rightly standing by its obligations to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and that the EU has also recognised this, as evidenced by its agreement to negotiate changes to the protocol? Does he not also agree that the UK can now act as a leading advocate at the WTO of free and fair principles-based international trade, leading to greater prosperity for many millions around the world?

My noble friend makes an extremely good point: that after Brexit, as an independent global trade player, we are one of the biggest in the world. We are very influential and hope to become more so in the WTO, and to be able to stand up and speak for trade liberalisation across the world, which is of huge benefit to us all.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what the case is for the UK being the only country in the world which has two separate Ministers and two separate departments, each dealing with roughly one-half of our overseas trade? What are the consequences for our handling of negotiations? What analysis has he received from the embassy in Washington on the realism of expecting decisive progress on a US-UK trade agreement under the Biden Administration?

My Lords, the decision taken, which I think is a good one, is that the UK-EU TCA is so sui generis—in fact, it goes much beyond trade into many wider areas such as law enforcement, road transport and so on—that it is best to handle it in a sui generis way. I do not know whether that decision is for ever, but it is the one that has been taken at the moment. We are ready to talk to the US about an FTA when it is ready. The US is conducting a review of its external trade policy at the moment. Some negotiating rounds have already taken place, but we stand ready to talk when both sides are ready.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister’s answers today and rarely have I heard answers so complacent about the concerns raised in your Lordships’ House on our international reputation and future ability to negotiate agreements, whether they be trade agreements or the complex negotiations around COP 26, if there is a lack of faith in us being trusted to keep our word on agreements we have already negotiated. I hope that he will go away and reflect on the comments he has made to your Lordships’ House today. On that issue, I bring him back to his earlier comment about the legal text. He said, “We will publish the legal text if it is useful”. We think it would be very useful and, if there is no difference from what has already been said, can he explain why he will not publish it? I bring him back to the issue of trust and transparency as something on which this Government have to make up for lost ground.

My Lords, we will publish the legal text if it is useful to the negotiating process between us and the European Union. At the moment, I am not convinced that it would be; circumstances may change, so that is not a decision of principle. To return to the first point of the question, I am of course in no way unmindful—quite the opposite—of our international reputation but, in the end, I cannot do anything about how others perceive us.

I am not complacent about things that are in our hands, which is the situation in Northern Ireland. I am in no way complacent about that and it is the focus of the activity we are trying to pursue. This Government are responsible for the prosperity and security of Northern Ireland. That is why we are pursuing the task as we are and that, along with the support of the Good Friday agreement, is our primary objective as we go forward.