FOREWORD BY THE PRIME MINISTER
In just over a year of negotiations, between November 2019 and the end of 2020, this Government completed our withdrawal from the EU and agreed a Trade and Cooperation Agreement – the broadest and most far-reaching bilateral trade agreement ever. Many said this would take years to complete or could not be done at all. We never believed that. Instead, we delivered a platform for a new relationship between this country and the EU in record time.
Unfortunately, one vital area of this partnership is not working well – the arrangements relating to Northern Ireland set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
These arrangements represented a huge compromise by the UK, designed to protect the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions. We repeatedly proposed alternative means to achieve those ends, which we felt better reflected the reality of the situation. Nevertheless, having reached a difficult compromise on the final text of the Protocol, we expected both sides to recognise the need to apply and administer it in a way that took account of the unique context of Northern Ireland, as the Protocol itself requires. This was vital not just for trade and economic reasons, but also because of the sensitive issues around politics and national identity.
We as a Government have been trying to do just that. But it has already become clear that it is not possible to operate these arrangements in a way that can be sustained, particularly not in the inflexible way the EU seems to want.
The impact of the Protocol has been profound economically, politically, socially, and commercially. Within Northern Ireland, it has placed strain on institutions which have already been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have begun to fear – wrongly
– a growing separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, notwithstanding the principle of consent enshrined in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. And it has served as a drag on the new partnership between the UK and the EU. This is all before the full effects of the Protocol have taken shape and with mitigations in place to reduce its full impact.
It is increasingly clear that we cannot solve the problems simply by a rigid and unpurposive application of the Protocol in its current form. Indeed the difficulties are so profound that I have had to consider whether safeguarding action is necessary under the Article 16 framework which the Protocol provides. My conclusion is that the circumstances in which we find ourselves would justify such an approach. But I also conclude that there is still an opportunity to proceed differently and to agree with the EU a new balance in how the Protocol operates because I believe that there is still political will to address shared problems on all sides. The same sense of responsibility that brought the Protocol into being must be summoned again, in recognition of the fact that it is failing to deliver on what it set out to achieve.
To properly deal with these challenges, in an enduring rather than temporary way, this new balance must deliver significant changes to the existing Protocol. It must ensure that we
can fully respect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, its customs territory and internal market, while playing our part in respecting the integrity of the EU’s Single Market, and, of course, ensuring that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remains without infrastructure or checks.
This paper sets out our proposals. They are necessarily ambitious. I make no apology for that: the spirit of the peace process has always required adaptation and evolution of solutions to meet the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. If we can work on them together, I am convinced we can find a settlement that can endure.
In the negotiations for our Trade and Cooperation Agreement, both this country and the EU showed that we were equal to the challenge and could demonstrate great innovation to craft something new. If we can do the same here, we can deliver for Northern Ireland and we can put wider UK-EU relations onto a better and more positive trajectory, as we all want. That is a prize worth having. Let us work hard for arrangements that can last.