View from the street: An open letter to Angela Merkel on Northern Ireland and the draft Brexit agreement

Jessica Learmond-Criqui

Jessica Learmond-Criqui - Credit: Archant

I live in the north west of London in the United Kingdom. Like the rest of the country, I have been looking on in bewilderment at the Brexit deal while politicians on both sides of the house vie for political supremacy. Divisions in government make for good news headlines but do nothing for the public’s confidence in its institutions.

You have been most vocal in your rejection of further negotiations. What is certain is that the current deal won’t get through our parliament for the reasons set out below. The purpose of this letter, therefore, is to invite you to consider two specific negotiation changes to the Withdrawal Agreement (“WA”) and Northern Ireland Protocol (“Protocol”) which may then see the WA make it through to its implementation date of March 30, 2019.

Currently, we are headed for a hard Brexit as there will be no second referendum and the UK will have a disorderly exit from the EU. This will weaken not just the UK, but also the EU. We are stronger together and while 52 per cent of voters wanted to leave the EU, it does not mean the UK cannot continue to be a friend to the EU, given our unique geography.

There are those who revel in, and will take advantage of, a disorganised UK and EU, but we must band together in these times and make the best fist of a bad job.

As you may know, the main sticking point relates to the position of Northern Ireland. The preamble to the Protocol provides that it is intended to apply temporarily and until superseded by another agreement (Article 1 of Protocol). But the drafting does not reflect that rhetoric. The concern is that the EU, while allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and single market (just as the UK is allowed to do during the transition period), the UK (minus Northern Ireland) can cut itself free at the end of the transition period but Northern Ireland may not be allowed to be cut free. This is because the Protocol requires Northern Ireland to remain tied to the EU after the end of the transition period unless ultimately both the UK and the EU decide that the Protocol should cease to apply. This allows Northern Ireland (and the UK with it) to be bound to the EU forever, at the EU’s behest (Article 20 of Protocol). This will never be acceptable to the people of the UK.

The annexes to the Protocol contain many rules that require the UK as a whole to abide by EU rules and regulations, particularly regarding tax, employment and the social chapter, etc, even after the end of the transitional period if no other agreement supersedes the Protocol.

So, if Northern Ireland remains tied to the EU forever, so will the UK in many respects as set out in the annexes. Again, this will never be acceptable.

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Negotiating point 1: The UK is permitted by Article 50 to leave the EU and it must be allowed to make that decision at the end of the transition period not just for itself minus Northern Ireland, but for Northern Ireland too. Therefore, the decision to end the Protocol must be the UK’s alone and not the EU’s. That will end the requirements for the UK to abide by certain rules and principles of the EU in the Annexes and that would be right.

The WA and Protocol are managed by a joint committee. But there are no provisions on how many members from the EU and the UK there may be on this committee or who is able to vote. A reference to the co-chairs making decisions by mutual consent is not clear enough to understand this important mechanism.

Negotiating point 2: The operation of the joint committee must be clearer, certainly with reference to equal numbers of reps from both sides so that there is a 50/50 split. If it is intended that only the co-chairs can vote, that needs to be made plain as it is not currently clear.

With these changes, the collective heart attack regarding Northern Ireland will pass and Mrs May can get on with progressing the WA through Parliament. I would be grateful for your consideration of these issue and your early response.