James Forsyth

How to fix the protocol

How to fix the protocol
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The blame game between London and Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol obscures the fact that there are solutions waiting to be found. There are, as I say in the Times today, ways to reform the protocol and better protect the Good Friday Agreement while not threatening the integrity of the single market.

Three changes would render the protocol far more acceptable and would better position it to withstand the undoubted pressures it will come under when the EU and UK start to diverge their regulations. 

The first of these is a trusted trader scheme for food. This would allow registered suppliers to move goods — including, yes, sausages — from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without checks. The likes of Sainsbury's can be trusted to make sure that British bangers are bought in the province rather than finding their way to the shelves of shops in Drogheda. A trusted trader scheme would not remove the trade boundary in the Irish Sea for British firms that supply Northern Ireland on an occasional and speculative basis. But it would keep culturally significant British foods in supermarkets and reduce the number of checks.

Second, the protocol already 'respects the essential state functions' of the UK. But it doesn’t define them. So British officials have been hesitant about using this provision. If the two sides made explicit that the protection of public health was an essential state function of the UK it would go a very long way towards solving the issue of medicines.

The third change would be the biggest concession that Brussels would have to make. It would be to exempt small parcels from the checks. This would allow families in Great Britain to send presents to their relatives in Northern Ireland without having to fill in a customs forms. There would be a risk of such items being smuggled into the single market, but it's hard to believe they would be in sufficient volumes to have any significant effect. Such a change would also strike a more reasonable balance between the two goals of the protocol: respecting the Good Friday Agreement and protecting the integrity of the single market.