Monday, October 25, 2021

A Brexit compromise on Northern Ireland may still be possible – just ask the Swiss

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With all the saber rattling before the negotiations, a deal can be made if both sides abandon their old beliefs.

If you look at Lord Frost’s speech on Tuesday, you might think that relations between the UK and the EU are so bad that their Northern Ireland deal would be torn apart in a matter of weeks.

But look behind the curtain of the usual saber rattle that precedes a round of tricky Brexit negotiations and there’s little evidence that both sides are in deal mode.

The EU has been after what it believes to be major concessions to the Northern Ireland Protocol, finally released today, for days.

This includes ending the so-called “sausage war” by lifting the ban on bringing Great British Bangers to Northern Ireland.

Border controls on goods in general will also be massively reduced and the rules governing the movement of medicines will be relaxed, addressing some of the biggest problems threatening the future of the protocol.

Then Arch-Brexiter Lord Frost came to Brussels with his demands to tear up the protocol and to significantly change the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the sole arbitrator of disputes between Great Britain and the EU.

At first glance, this is an impossible requirement for Brussels, as Northern Ireland is de facto a member of the EU internal market for goods and follows the Brussels rules in this area, which are monitored by the ECJ as standard.

Lord Frost and Downing Street, however, do not refer to these demands as a “red line”, but rather as a “key question”.

In his speech, the peer also signaled a willingness to negotiate, which would be almost impossible if he really wanted the role of the ECJ to be completely abolished.

Instead, the Brexit minister spoke of “checks and balances”, which prompted several Brexit observers to recognize the outlines of a landing zone for a deal in the so-called “Swiss model”.

This would create a more balanced oversight before the ECJ is involved in disputes, a kind of arbitration tribunal with representatives from both the UK and the EU.

It would allow Britain to claim a victory – it has watered down the role of the ECJ.

And it would allow the EU to say that it has not bent backwards to accommodate Brexit Britain because the model already exists and the ECJ still has its role in interpreting Brussels law.

Northern Ireland could even be given a more active role in shaping the EU rules that apply to it.

Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute has suggested that these are “easy concessions” for the EU.

That may not be entirely true, as some EU leaders like Emmanuel Macron flatly denied all calls for renegotiations for months.

But Brussels is betting on sausages and customs show that it is ready to continue what was once the Articles of Faith.

The question is whether Brexit Ultra Lord Frost is ready to accept imperfect sovereignty and an ongoing role for European judges.

It may depend on whether the hardest hit in Northern Ireland can live with it.

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