There wasn’t a breakthrough but neither was there a breakdown, is how Lord Frost, the government’s Brexit minister, summarised the talks about Northern Ireland with his European Commission counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, and other EU representatives on Wednesday.
Perhaps not the most positive of readouts but when Frost, the enfant terrible of last year’s troubled trade talks, is involved, such a place of calm is not to be sniffed at. And for all the fire and fury, including hyperbolic headlines of sausage trade wars, there are also signs, albeit rather small, of compromises in the making.
On the table in front of those assembled in the so-called joint committee meeting on Wednesday, including the first and deputy first minister, had been a dauntingly long list of problems facing the people of Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement designed to avoid a border on the island of Ireland. They range from the difficulties in taking pets back and forth to Britain to the unintended application of tariff quotas on steel entering Northern Ireland.
Then there are the difficulties faced by supermarkets in stocking shelves with British products owing to costly paperwork. The EU is proving resistant to broadening out the current trusted trader scheme, which might help deal with that. Brussels complains in turn that the UK has not established the systems necessary to trace goods to ensure they are not being sold on into the Republic of Ireland. But these are all eminently solvable issues.
There are, however, two rather more tricky problems where fundamental interests collide. The first is that the EU is insisting that the full gamut of sanitary and phytosanitary controls will need to be imposed from 1 October on imports from Britain on meat, fish, eggs and diary, including time-consuming export health certificates (EHCs), which need to be completed by a vet or other qualified person. This would be a killer for trade, making it overly expensive for products to enter Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The EU has so far demanded dynamic alignment, if only temporarily, between UK law and its rulebook for these controls to be dispensed with. That is not something the UK will countenance, largely on ideological grounds: they didn’t do Brexit to sign up to EU law.
Officials on both sides who endured the five years of negotiations following the 2016 referendum recognise this debate. And there isn’t an easy answer. But a new UK proposal is being analysed in Brussels for any merit.
Then there is the looming British sausage and mince meat ban. From the end of this month, a grace period on an EU prohibition on the sale of chilled meats imported from outside the bloc is due to come into force. The UK could unilaterally extend the grace period on that ban again – but such a move would certainly almost lead to the EU taking the British government to binding arbitration and potentially enforcing tariffs on UK goods entering the single market in retaliation for breaches of their agreements.
It isn’t a good look nor great politics given Joe Biden’s previous tweets of concern over British adherence, or lack of, to international law. The UK wants a trade deal with the US president, after all.
Šefčovič, however, in his press conference following discussions with Frost didn’t rule out a mutually agreed extension of the grace period to provide more time for a solution to be hacked out. All is, perhaps, not lost for the British sausage.
It is claimed by Frost that many of these difficulties, arising from erecting a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, couldn’t possibly have been foreseen in the scale and scope they are now taking. Theresa May, who fought against any such arrangement precisely because of the political and economic issues that would arise, would probably have something to say about that. But looking back rarely does Northern Ireland much good. Recent days haven’t been pretty but Wednesday’s talks do offer some hope that both sides realise that.