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Boris Johnson signed the Northern Ireland protocol – now he needs to make it work

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As both the UK and the EU outlined their approach to the Northern Ireland protocol this week, communities and businesses in Northern Ireland are still no clearer as to what their future holds. The instability over the protocol has gone on for far too long. Many are concerned that the outcome may be a mid-November showdown, with the UK invoking Article 16 and unilaterally ripping up the agreement.

While this approach would no doubt appeal to many on the government’s back benches, it would be damaging, counterproductive, and cause further instability. It would lead to an inevitable trade war with our biggest trade partners, at a time when we already face a growing winter crisis as well as tensions in Northern Ireland.

We have seen this tactic before from the government, yet threats of “no deal” didn’t lead to a more favourable post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU. In fact, they led to a deal Lord Frost, the government’s chief Brexit negotiator, now describes as “disruptive” and “damaging”. It is remarkable to think that this is the same agreement he and Boris Johnson negotiated – word by word.

The British people voted to get Brexit done; they didn’t vote for more years of uncertainty, renegotiation, and trade disputes.

Britain already faces a tough economic climate, and as we seek to recover from the pandemic it is the government’s duty to avoid plummeting the country into further uncertainty. To stop this, Boris Johnson will need to break the habit of a lifetime and take some responsibility. He negotiated the protocol, he signed it, so for the good of our country he needs to make it work. The last thing Northern Ireland needs is another destabilising stand-off.

In Lord Frost’s speech in Lisbon on Tuesday he claimed the UK was looking for solutions, urging flexibility from the EU. In the coming weeks he has to show he means it.

Businesses want to get on with stacking shelves, not filing paperwork. So while there is no doubt that the lack of trust between the UK and the EU is preventing progress, the EU’s proposals on agricultural goods look to be a serious offer our government should engage with.

For months now, Labour has been saying that a solution can be found, starting with agricultural goods and a new veterinary agreement. This may sound technical, but traders are crying out for such an agreement, as it would go a long way to eliminating checks on agricultural produce from Britain into Northern Ireland, and would ease many of the tensions surrounding the protocol.

Regulatory checks on food products, including dairy, eggs, meat and other staples, are now a requirement on GB-NI trade. These checks bring with them the need for costly certificates and sign-off from vets, keeping products in the back of a truck when they should be on supermarket shelves.

Instead of yet another poisonous stand-off, a new agreement can lower the regulatory Irish Sea border that the prime minister negotiated. Sadly, the government seems to be allergic to the suggestion of any common standards or veterinary agreement, which seems odd given that securing such an agreement was a stated aim of Lord Frost’s negotiation team in February last year. It has been said that the government doesn’t want to agree common standards with the EU as it wants to maintain flexibility for future trade deals, but surely that would contradict its commitment to maintain high welfare and safety standards?

I would urge Lord Frost and his colleagues to work with the EU and find a resolution. The government has negotiated itself into a big hole over Northern Ireland, and rather than look for ways out, it keeps digging. What we need is a change of direction, and a genuine effort to build trust.

As the party that delivered the Good Friday Agreement, Labour knows how much this matters and will support this government to find solutions. But first, Johnson and Frost must show they really want to.

Jenny Chapman is Labour’s shadow minister for Task Force Europe

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