To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what discussions he has had with the Vice President of the European Commission following the publication of the European Union’s proposals regarding the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on 13 October.
My Lords, I am in regular contact with Vice-President Šefčovič about the full range of issues relating to the UK-EU relationship. Most recently, I met him in Brussels on 15 October for an initial discussion of the EU’s proposals. I expect to talk to him again very shortly. My teams and that of the EU have been in talks in Brussels this week about the detail of the proposals that the EU has put on the table.
My Lords, ongoing discussions will undoubtedly highlight the innumerable benefits that have flowed from the Northern Ireland protocol, encompassing business and economic development, inward investment opportunities and job creation, as well as the areas in which a joint UK-EU approach is required around mitigations for medicines and agri-food products. In view of this, can the Minister indicate whether the Government have undertaken an evidence-based assessment of the impact of the removal of the European Court of Justice on local businesses in Northern Ireland? It is a yes or no answer. By the way, no business in Northern Ireland has highlighted a problem with the European Court of Justice.
My Lords, opinions differ on the innumerable benefits of the protocol, as the noble Baroness puts it. I certainly hear concern from business about the imposition of EU law without consent that the Court of Justice of the European Union is at the summit of. The difficulty is that it is not true to say, as some do, that the protocol gives the benefit of both worlds. It gives access to the EU single market for goods but at the very significant price of restricted access to Northern Ireland’s major trading partner, which is Great Britain and the rest of the United Kingdom. That is the unsatisfactory balance that we currently have, one that needs to be redressed.
My Lords, does the Minister intend to promote the benefits of the protocol, as set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, to the business community in Northern Ireland, 67% of which believes that Northern Ireland’s status now represents many opportunities for the region? Will he say which of the many benefits set out in the European Union’s 13 October proposals he is most excited about and engaged with? For example, is it that if a lorry transports 100 different food products from GB to Northern Ireland, only one certificate will now be needed instead of 100 certificates? We would join him in such a campaign.
My Lords, my team has been in discussion with the EU on this subject all week. We are seeking to understand the detail that underlies some of the headline claims that the EU has made. It is possible that we do not fully understand that detail yet, but perhaps that will come. One aspect of the EU proposals that I am excited about is that they show that what previously it has considered impossible—changing its own laws for the special circumstances of Northern Ireland—is now possible. That is a very important and welcome step, and I hope the EU might be able to go further than the proposals it put on the table last week.
I think my noble friend would agree that the Northern Ireland protocol is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. Does he not share my concern that, if we go back and seek to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol, we will open up and have to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement as well?
My Lords, the protocol has always been a somewhat separable bit of the withdrawal agreement, in the sense that it was renegotiated after the first version of the withdrawal agreement was agreed back at the start of 2019. It is to some extent free-standing in that sense, so I do not think that opening it up should affect wider parts of the deal. It is a text that is there to deal with a very specific problem, and therefore we need to find the correct, very specific solution.
My Lords, the New York Times ran an interesting article a few days ago under the headline “Showdown Over Northern Ireland Has a Key Offstage Player: Biden”. It was clearly briefed by administration officials and said:
“In recent days, unprompted, Mr. Biden asked his staff for an update on the negotiations between Britain and the European Union over trade arrangements in Northern Ireland. He urged them to relay a message to the Johnson government that it should not do anything that would jeopardize the peace accord in the North”.
It also said that
“pressure from the American president may cause Mr. Johnson to think twice about provoking another destabilizing clash with Brussels.”
Does that pressure do so, or are this Government really going to antagonise what they love to describe as their closest ally?
My Lords, as a Government we obviously have our own dialogue with the US Government that does not depend on messages in the New York Times. I refer back to the statement made by the Prime Minister when he was in Washington last month, when he noted that he and President Biden were “completely at one” on the importance of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are completely at one on that subject.
I am really puzzled by the Minister’s reply to the question from his noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Does he not acknowledge that in law the protocol is an integral part of the treaty? Does he accept that safeguard action under Article 15 of the protocol could not extend to abrogating Articles 12 and 5 of the protocol, which set out the role of the court? Does he accept that the EU could not conceivably agree to amend Article 12 to confer on a non-EU court the right to interpret EU law? If so, how would he deliver on his threat? Since it cannot be done legally, does he again envisage legislating to act illegally in a “limited and specific way”? If so, I do not believe this House would agree.
My Lords, obviously the protocol is part of the withdrawal agreement but that does not prevent its being reopened and renegotiated separately. The same is true of any treaty; it is possible to negotiate part and not the whole thing. On the Article 16 question, obviously the Article 16 provisions in the protocol are nearly sui generis. There are very few parallels for them anywhere else. The scope of how they may be used remains to be tested. What is clear is that they are safeguards to deal with an evolving and difficult socioeconomic situation and the issue of trade diversion. When and if we take action under Article 16, obviously that will be the purpose of any action. As I say, though, we hope to come to a consensual agreement rather than having to go down that road.
I take it from the answers the Minister provided to the previous Question that he did not consult Ministers in Northern Ireland about his new draft text and does not intend to publish it for the benefit of politicians in this country. I gently say to him that contentious issues in Northern Ireland are never resolved without the engagement of senior figures, and he needs to take this far more seriously. Rather than flying around Europe making speeches, why is he not speaking with Mr Šefčovič in Belfast to thrash out these issues? The people of Northern Ireland and the public here will tire of this endless Brexit drama vortex that he seems to want to keep us captured in. We want solutions and he will find them only through dialogue, and I suggest that that should take place in Belfast.
My Lords, we are obviously engaged in a very intensive dialogue on this question, both at my level and among teams and beyond that. As I said, obviously we talk to senior politicians in Northern Ireland across the range of opinion the whole time, and that is the responsibility of others in this Government as well as myself. We will publish the legal text if it is useful to the process, just as we did last year in negotiations on the trade and co-operation agreement. When it is useful and when it can help to get us closer to agreement then we will consider doing that, but at the moment it is a confidential negotiating document.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.