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Perfidious Albion

On Thursday morning last week, I was on Good Morning Ulster on the BBC Radio Ulster, debating with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson the latest breach of the Withdrawal Agreement by the UK Government.

You should watch back the recordings of the previous day’s proceedings in the House of Commons. DUP MPs had clearly been tipped off to ask specific questions about extending the grace periods. So much for the UK Government being an independent guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. Taking the side of the DUP and this and many other issues makes a mockery of this important role.

Sir Jeffrey asks Secretary of State Brandon Lewis what he thinks about extension periods and Lewis obliges by announcing that the UK government will extend them unilaterally. So much for parity of esteem.

The issue here is that the European Parliament is due to ratify the Trade and Cooperation Agreement later this month but has always said it would be contingent on the UK fully implementing the Withdrawal Agreement (and its Northern Ireland protocol). The extension of grace periods is a breach of the protocol.

I believe that the issue here is not about the grace periods. Everyone in Ireland, north and south, agreed with the idea of an extension and everyone believed that we were getting there anyway in the negotiations between Maros Sefcovic and Michael Gove.

The real problem for Ireland is that the UK will continue to unilaterally extend these periods or demand easements. This, in turn, will inevitably give rise to a request from other EU countries for checks on products coming from Ireland. This would downgrade Ireland’s membership of the EU, our access to the Single Market and our future economic prospects.

The European Parliament needs to take a stand against non-implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. And it has the power to do so to an certain extent.

The provisional application of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement was due to run out on the 28th February. However, on the 23rd of February the UK and the EU agreed to extend this date to the 30th April. The UK were reluctant to do so but accepted that it was necessary.

It is unusual for provisional application of such an EU international agreement to have an end-date. Normally, it would continue for as long as was necessary to allow for proper scrutiny. My preference would be to delay ratification of the TCA until after all grace periods have elapsed and the protocol is being fully implemented.

We have been negotiating the terms of the UK relationship with the EU for decades with opt-ins and rebates and the like, while they were members of the EU. And it looks to me like we will be negotiating for years to come, certainly for as long as Boris is in charge.

The consequences of further delaying ratification are not problematic for business. After all, the TCA was only agreed in late December. It has already been delayed once from the first date set in February as mentioned above.

But the European Parliament can’t delay ratification unilaterally. The date currently set in the TCA is the end of April. Why would the UK government agree to a further extension? Are we prepared to have a further cliff-edge for business in the event of a failure to ratfiy?

We, the European Parliament, carry a very significant burden of responsibility. It was decided that the TCA is not a ‘mixed agreement’ requiring national ratification by the parliaments of all of the 27 Member States. So it is down to us.

There are options for legal proceedings against the UK under Article 12 of the Protocol or under the Withdrawal Agreement itself. But where would that get us.

It is a real quandary for Ireland, for the Irish MEPs and for the European Parliament. Watch this space.

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