There will be chaos at the borders. Food will run out at the supermarkets. Travellers will face long queues, and companies yet another round of disruption. As the UK lays the groundwork for breaking with the Northern Ireland Protocol, we will hear plenty of scare stories about how it might mean losing the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. There is an element of truth in that, of course. The EU may well decide that if we are not sticking to the Protocol then the free trade deal has to go as well. But there is a flaw in that argument, and it is not exactly a minor one. In truth, the FTA is not worth saving – and certainly not worth sacrificing Northern Ireland for.
Lord Frost confirmed today that the UK would be looking to substantially re-rewrite the NI Protocol agreed when we left the EU. Despite the inevitable howls from a few hardcore remainers, there is nothing very unusual about that. People renegotiate agreements all the time, depending on how they work out in practise (if that wasn’t the case, no one would ever have had a pay rise). It is perfectly reasonable for the UK to argue the Protocol is causing too many problems and that we would like to take another look.
The trouble is, the EU may well insist on sticking to the letter of the agreement, and threaten to scrap the FTA. But is that really worth saving? Not really, and there are three reasons why the threat is largely an empty one.
First, it was a very thin agreement to start with. All it essentially did was remove tariffs and quotas, but they are mostly insignificant for the UK. We don’t export that much to the EU, and most of what we do is, broadly speaking, only subject to minor tariffs anyway. The sectors that were most badly hit were agriculture, and fishing, but new markets have been found in most cases, and the FTA didn’t stop businesses from being disrupted.
Next, companies have already adjusted to the extra paperwork. Some have decided it is not worth the hassle and given up, while others have found workable solutions and carried on much as normal. Either way, whether we have an FTA with the EU doesn’t make much difference now.
Finally, it is now clear that we are not going to get a deal for the City, or for our services exporters. It would have been great if we could, but there is no point in worrying about it anymore.
The NI Protocol might have made sense when we were still hoping for a valuable trade deal with the EU, and an amicable relationship on a whole range of issues. Some compromises were worthwhile to make that happen. It is now clear that isn’t how it worked out. In fact, the best move the UK could make now would be to insist that the Protocol has become unworkable, and walk away from it. True, we may lose the FTA with the EU. But it is no longer worth saving anyway.