My Lords, I congratulate both maiden speakers, whose excellent speeches showed what valuable contributions they will make to our deliberations, and it is a privilege to follow the very thoughtful remarks of my noble friend Lord Dunlop. I want to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol. It was negotiated in haste in the 100 days between Boris Johnson becoming PM and the EU’s deadline for the UK leaving with or without a deal.
We all knew that the protocol, though better than the previous backstop, which the Commons rejected with historic majorities, was full of internal contradictions and unresolved issues. The Government and Parliament none the less accepted it, because it contained a mechanism for resolving those issues—the joint committee, which has unlimited powers to rewrite the text and in which both parties are committed to negotiate in good faith to uphold the peace process and respect the integrity of one another’s internal markets. If that does not work, Article 16 allows us to override the protocol, as does Clause 30 of the withdrawal Act. However, the EU has refused to revise one word of the protocol, even though it is causing communal tension and economic dislocation. It insists that all goods for the EU must submit to, and usually prove compliance with, every one of the single market regulations, whose titles alone fill 73 pages of the protocol. It argues that the huge problems this will create can be avoided by the UK adopting that legislation throughout the UK.
It is now as clear as daylight that the EU cynically sees the protocol simply as a lever to force the UK as a whole to align with its single market legislation, past and future. But the EU conceals that objective behind three excuses, and it is time we challenged them. The first is that the protocol is necessary to protect the peace process. If anything, the reverse is true. It was always absurd to say that checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic would threaten the Good Friday agreement and possibly even the peace, whereas checks on the far larger volume of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would have no such consequences. Now we see that invoking the threat of violence as a reason not to have even virtual checks on trade with the Republic has directly provoked violent demonstrations against the Irish Sea border.
The EU’s second excuse for its intransigence is that the protocol is necessary to protect the integrity of the EU internal market. This raises several obvious questions, which I hope the Minister will answer or put to the EU. Why are checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, even those destined to remain in Northern Ireland, necessary to protect the integrity of the EU market, whereas no checks at all are needed on goods entering Great Britain from Northern Ireland to protect the integrity of the UK internal market? During the prolonged grace period, have any actual threats to the EU internal market emerged, threats to the health and safety of EU citizens? If not, why not prolong the grace period indefinitely? Is it credible that trade in non-compliant goods across the border with the Republic and onwards into mainland Europe would be remotely profitable? Will lorry-loads of Dyson vacuum cleaners, lacking the EU’s misleading energy labels, be smuggled over the border then shipped to Holyhead, across Britain to Calais and onwards to Paris? I think not. Either smuggling of non-compliant goods will be small-scale and local, which would be nothing new, or, if large-scale, impossible to conceal, easy to stop at their destination or be apprehended by trading standards officers when they reach the shops on the continent. The largest item of cross-border trade is alcoholic beverages, on which duty rates have long been different north and south of the border, yet this has been successfully managed without checks at the border, so why not other products too?
The EU’s third excuse is that it is necessary to put these restrictions in place on GB trade now, since, in future, British and EU rules may diverge. But, surely, measures would only be needed, if at all, for the minority of products where rules diverge; then only for consignments at risk of crossing the border into the Republic; and then only if the divergence introduced is a potential threat to the health and well-being of citizens of the EU.
In short, it is time to debunk the case for implementing the protocol until it is slimmed down to focus on tangible, not imaginary, problems.