Politics

Political commentator John Rentoul answers your most Brexit pressing questions

The UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020, but Brexit negotiations are not yet over.

Negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol have bubbled to the surface again.

The EU and UK are set for an intense round of talks in the coming weeks after Brussels published a range of proposals aimed at cutting the red tape the protocol has imposed on moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Here our political commentator, John Rentoul, answers your questions.

Q: No doubt the current “crisis” over the NI protocol is dramatic news and has potentially far reaching consequences. Where do you think the landing zone is for this new turn of Brexit?

I think the EU proposals offer a good basis for a compromise, allowing the lightest of checks on goods going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. I’m not sure what will happen to the British demand to end the role of the European court in NI. I don’t know why Boris Johnson and [Lord David] Frost are pushing it – whether they see it as the way to persuade anti-protocol unionists in NI to support it, in which case they ought to make a better case for it.

Q: Do you see the latest talks as a serious attempt to unpick the whole withdrawal agreement [WA]?

No, I can’t see what the point of that would be. It might be a bargaining position, designed to be dropped in return for concessions from the EU; or it might be an attempt to persuade anti-protocol unionists that the protocol has been radically changed. The danger of that is that if the EU refuses, it might harden opposition to the protocol; even a Swiss-style compromise, inserting an arbitration procedure before the European court, might only increase opposition.

Q: In which decade can the UK look forward to gaining more than it had lost economically speaking?

It can’t, in my opinion. I think making trade more difficult with our main market is bound to make us poorer than we would otherwise be for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean that we would be poorer than before Brexit, although the picture is confused by the pandemic, but magical future trade deals with expanding economies in the rest of the world are unlikely to make up the difference.

But economics isn’t everything, and people are prepared to pay a price for independence – ask the SNP, which is prepared to pay a much higher one.

Q: Didn’t the electorate give the Tories their majority in parliament to seal the WA and is upholding that WA executing the “will of the people”? Breaking or radically changing the WA is opposing the “will of the people”, isn’t it?

I don’t think it is right that the UK government puts all the responsibility for peace on Ireland and the EU. The status of Northern Ireland, and specifically the need to maintain an open border with the Republic, means that both the UK’s and the EU’s sovereignty has to be compromised. The question is where the balance should be struck, and in my view the EU’s desire to enforce the strictest checks on goods going to NI from the rest of the UK (which was never implemented) was unhelpful, and it is good that the EU has moved on that. As for changing the protocol (part of the withdrawal agreement), that might be in accord with the will of the people in Northern Ireland, where opinion is currently evenly divided for and against the protocol. If changes can be made that increase support for the protocol, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Q: Given that Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol in exchange for just a very thin trade deal (and no services deal), would it perhaps have been better (from a Johnson/[Dominic] Cummings perspective) to have chosen the no-deal route and then challenged the EU to make Dublin enforce a border with NI?

I think the “thin” trade deal was very much better for us than no deal, which really would have stymied UK-EU trade. On the other hand, you are right that the EU and Ireland never admitted that the threat of having to enforce the EU border on the island of Ireland was one they worried about. It must be in the back of their minds still, because that is what lies behind the UK threat to suspend the NI protocol under article 16. Very much better for both sides to hammer out pragmatic compromises, though.

Q: Do the EU’s concessions apply just to GB-NI trade or more widely to UK-EU trade too?

Only to goods going from GB to NI, because Boris Johnson insisted that Brexit must mean leaving the EU customs union. We should be clear that the light-touch regime for GB-NI goods is a significant concession by the EU, because it does allow a possible breach in the border of the internal market, but both sides have had to accept unusual rules for the sake of making an open border in Ireland compatible with the UK as a whole leaving the customs union.

Q: Will UK employers be able to pay higher wages to attract local labour? Can their businesses afford it or will prices have to rise to cover such increases which will increase inflation that negates the pay rise ? Businesses working on small profit margins could go under if they cannot attract cheap labour.

The idea that wages in the UK have been suppressed by the import of cheap labour from central Europe seems to make obvious sense, but there is little evidence for it. In fact, new workers who came to the UK tended to raise productivity (as well as spending much of their wages here), thus making all of us better off. A wage-price inflationary spiral is not going to make people in the UK generally better off, although wages in some shortage sectors may rise relative to the rest temporarily.

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