A Brexit deal now looks closer than ever under Liz Truss

Liz Truss - MIKE SEGAR
Liz Truss – MIKE SEGAR

A Brexit deal looks more likely than unlikely after Britain set a six-month deadline for negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The only thing Brexit deadlines have in common is that almost all of them are missed. However, a deal may be reached to reduce Irish Sea border controls on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April. By setting the deadline, Liz Truss has removed the threat of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill for now. The prospect of breaking the treaty with legislation angered the EU, which said it would violate international law. The rhetoric on both sides has softened. London and Dublin have talked of a “landing zone” for the deal. That falls somewhere between loosening controls enough to satisfy Britain and maintaining enough safeguards to reassure Brussels that nothing that doesn’t meet EU standards crosses from Northern Ireland into Ireland. Both the UK and the EU have called for a “fast lane”, where goods deemed not at risk of crossing into the Single Market in Ireland can avoid checks. The EU has offered a reduction in controls in exchange for the UK sharing market surveillance data on British products entering Northern Ireland. A British IT system monitoring cross-border trade has already been set up, but it will need some fine-tuning to satisfy Brussels.

Truss rules out UK-US trade deal aid

Existing grace periods that exempt refrigerated meat products such as sausages, supermarket supplies and packages from border controls may become permanent. The EU has already changed its laws to ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to get cheaper generic drugs from the NHS. Liz Truss ruling out a UK-US trade deal in the near future also helps. Brussels was concerned about US products, which did not meet EU standards, flooding into the UK and seeping across the Irish border from Northern Ireland into member state Ireland. The UK may now be willing to consider a deal to align UK and EU animal and plant health standards with each other, which would allow border checks to be reduced by around 80 per cent. Such a “Swiss-style” SPS deal was out, while a US trade deal was a prospect because the UK would have to deviate from EU rules to allow some US farm imports. The Protocol was a footnote in the official EU reading of talks between Liz Truss and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Liz Truss met with Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in New York this week - REUTERS
Liz Truss met with Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in New York this week – REUTERS

This fits in with an established Brussels strategy of de-dramatization to gain space for negotiators ahead of the talks. When the Commission and Downing Street are completely silent, then the negotiations are deadly serious. Negotiations will continue to be difficult and there will be bumps in the road. Political will and commitments from both parties will be needed to meet the April deadline. As is traditional, a deal is likely to only be made at the last minute. The clock is ticking again on Brexit, but it seems that it is already too late for Northern Ireland. The DUP refused to share power with Sinn Fein after their first victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May until the Protocol is removed or replaced. The interim executive must be replaced before October 28 or new elections will be triggered. The next April deadline for the Protocol deal suggests Northern Ireland will face its second election in eight months this Christmas. Assuming the deal is good enough for the DUP, Stormont could be up and running by April after 14 months in cold storage. There has not been a fully functioning proxy government since February, when the DUP withdrew from Stormont in protest of the Protocol. During that time, his politicians, on full salary, have been unable to use delegated powers to tackle the UK’s longest NHS waiting lists or the cost of living crisis. As Liz Truss herself would say, that’s a shame.

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