As a relatively new member of the House of Commons Business Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, together with committee colleagues I travelled to Brussels recently as part of our inquiry into competition policy and state aid.
Our conversations with witnesses to our inquiry also covered Horizon Europe – the EU research programme the UK is hoping to associate with – and also Digital Markets.
Whilst the substance of our inquiry discussions focussed on those matters, it was clear from the outset that the major overriding stumbling block between the UK and the EU was of course the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Sadly, it was clearly hampering substantive progress just about everything.
Our introduction was a comprehensive briefing from our Ambassador to the EU and UK mission staff.
The visit programme was then crammed with immensely informed and informative discussions including with the EU Commission’s Director General for Competition, the hugely impressive Olivier Guersent, who made it clear the high regard in which the skills and expertise of the UK’s Competition and Market Authority were held.
That warmth of that high regard was echoed throughout our discussions. Sadly, that was in direct contrast to how our EU and European based witnesses viewed the UK’s current political behaviour and conduct.
But that important recognition of expertise seemed to suggest some degree of optimism as to how the EU and UK could continue to collaborate on the shared objectives around anticompetitive agreements and merger control but with a health warning as regards the digital sphere around the ability of regulations and regulatory bodies in the EU and in the UK being able to keep pace with the pace of technological development.
Our next discussion was with Dr Fabian Zuleeg the Chief Executive of the European Policy Centre which is dedicated to fostering European integration through analysis and debate as the future of Europe unfolds. Even more so in this discussion was the ever-present spectre of the Northern Ireland protocol.
It seems to me that these problems over border checks aside, Northern Ireland could possibly migrate to the best of all positions, not only as a continued member of the UK single market but, with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and the commitment to no hard border on the island of Ireland Northern Ireland, a de facto beneficiary of the EU single market as well.
The problem is the checks on goods entering the EU single market from GB has to take place somewhere and, as a hard land border between the Republic and the North is a nonstarter, whatever the checks there have to be they have to be effective as goods enter Northern Ireland.
The trick and the difficulty is to make those checks as easy and unobtrusive as possible but the reality is, as it has always been, that the EU guards its customs union and single market very closely for very good and sound reasons.
The EU quite understandably will not risk goods entering into the single market via the back door of the borderless island of Ireland, either now or in the future (and all such treaty and treaty implementation discussions are about future proofing) that will lower the standards that the EU has set.
With the discussion with Fabian and with other discussions with MEPs, our Chamber of Commerce and Make UK, the overwhelming sense was that there was a great feeling on the part of our European friends of upset and yes hurt that the UK left the EU in the first place but more importantly, a real anger that the UK, of all nations, would so readily break an international treaty- to flagrantly breach international law when the ink is barely dry. It really is not about interpretation or implementation it’s about adherence. If we can sort adherence out the rest will follow.
The recent wrecking actions of Northern Ireland ministers Givan and Poots in resigning, demanding that the protocol be scrapped and scuppering the functioning of the Assembly, is incredibly unhelpful and hardly the actions of people wanting to work to a solution.
Of course, I get it that there is a UK government line to be put out there that it is the obdurate Europeans who are to blame but quite frankly, the behaviour of DUP politicians Poots and Givan and the idiocy of Boris Johnson who said business people should just tear up any customs forms that were put in front of them, makes any semblance of defence of the UK’s position wholly untenable.
We – the United Kingdom- negotiated the agreement. We signed it and we ratified it through our own Parliament. It’s not exactly unreasonable to expect the British to abide by their own agreement or did we not understand what we were signing?
I do worry very much that our standing with our European neighbours and beyond, has been severely damaged by our government’s apparent duplicity. Our word used to be our bond. Not anymore. Given our governments conduct, how on earth does this serve us for future negotiations when any partners in those discussions simply won’t be able to trust us?
But it’s not entirely without hope. There is the opportunity for us as a country to still demonstrate some political and moral courage and as first step we could stop the chest beating and political posturing and be serious in our discussions around the implementation of the protocol.
That’s the political. Then there’s the technical but to tap into the undoubted expertise and solution finding capacity, the politics needs to be sorted.
Then it comes down to data. The EU need access to the customs data regarding goods going from GB to NI.
As we were told by an MEP, the people who are supposed to do the checks don’t want to do them and they won’t part with the data in any event. That quite frankly is just a stupid position for the UK to be in.
We were promised that the transit of goods GB- NI and indeed EU to UK -would all be seamless and frictionless but currently it clearly is anything but.
That said, witnesses did opine that there is a way to deliver that will neither be overly intrusive, delaying or costly. There’s a great deal of detail and technological expertise needed to fulfil that ambition but it’s in no one’s interests to frustrate the efficient transit of goods.
If we can be smart about this and if we can get the technology right- and they clearly are big ifs- there is a real opportunity here and, whisper it, such light touch, high tech efficient solutions may be equally applicable on English Channel crossings alleviating the 20-hour long lorry queues that’s causing such disruption to supply chains.
Whilst we did have very useful exchanges around Competition, State Aid and Digital Markets, we kept coming back time and time again hard up against the rock face of the Northern Ireland protocol.
That was also made clear with regard to the UK’s association with the EU Horizon research programme. We can’t make any progress on Horizon until the protocol problem is resolved. It’s absolutely imperative that the momentum in collaborative scientific research is sustained. If we can’t get early progress on Horizon all the previous collaborations, the critical personal relationships of faith and trust that have made such progress on so many issues impacting on all our peoples, will be lost. It would an act of criminal recklessness to undermine it in any way. Unfortunately, that’s the position we are currently in.
This is undoubtedly a difficult period for UK/EU relations right now and in the years ahead. It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of investment and goodwill from both sides to rebuild trust but, hitherto we in the UK have been pretty good at doing that and we are going to have to revert to type if we ever to persuade our friends that they can do business with us and they can trust us.
At a technological, technocratic and civil service level there is a great deal of ability to make progress but sadly, the politics is getting in the way.
We are blessed with people in the EU and in the UK who are desperate to get on with things. We’ve got some urgent issues to progress including Net Zero and tackling the climate crisis, energy supply and security and also addressing the challenges in the ever-changing digital markets, amongst many other things.
On a personal level, as someone born in 1958 and living in a post war period of longed for peace in Europe, but with the echoes of that catastrophe still reverberating, and having had and continuing to have a visceral sense of European solidarity, I confess, as a Remainer representing a Leaver electorate, to a sense of huge sadness at being in Brussels and feeling very much that we were no longer part of it.
But I accept that we are where we are and the time has come to stop talking about Brexit and start focussing on our “Future Relationship”.
A huge thanks to our wonderful committee clerks for putting this visit together and to colleagues in the UK Mission in Brussels. It’s conversations, engagement and greater understanding that will help us better shape the critically important future relationship.