Can the Northern Ireland Protocol be fixed?

Anyone with experience of trade deals will tell you that the biggest challenge is not removing tariffs but removing the regulatory barriers to trade.

The EU-UK trade deal is unique in that it seeks to reinstate the regulatory barriers that the customs union and single market had removed.

Over the last year the UK Government has been banging on about companies needing to prepare for the new challenges of paperwork, border controls and veterinary inspections that would be needed when the transition period came to an end.

The focus has mostly been on the Dover crossing where there were real fears of huge delays at the Eurotunnel and the ferry ports.

So far, with the exception of the live shellfish exporters who cannot get their live product to EU markets in time, and the smaller gin and whisky distillers who are struggling to find shippers prepared to take their single pallets as part of bigger loads, the majority of companies appear to be coping with the extra bureaucracy and costs of the new border controls.

However, many companies appear to have been blindsided by the fact the deal created a customs border in the Irish sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Under the Northern Ireland protocol there is now a border between two parts of the UK allowing Northern Ireland to stay in the EU customs union avoiding a hard border between the North and South of Ireland.

Border inspections introduced at the ports of Larne and Belfast are now causing serious problems to the flow of products between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland.

The controls have led to empty supermarket shelves, restrictions on food products, restrictions on transporting animals, and a ban on the export of seed potatoes between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Political tensions have been rising as a result of the border problems, with the DUP who are fundamentally opposed to the Irish sea border leading the charge against the Protocol.

The European Commission’s tin eared threat to unilaterally suspend the Protocol in the row over vaccine supplies threw even more fuel onto the political fire.

Tensions are rising between London and Brussels over the UK’s call for changes to the Protocol and a two-year delay before full checks and inspections are introduced.

The Commission rejected the call and demanded that the UK must fully implement the Protocol before they would be willing to consider any changes.

At the weekend Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin called on both sides to cool it and dial down the rhetoric as he feared it could lead to a return to violence in the province.

The call by some local politicians to get rid of the Protocol is pure fantasy as it is an integral part of the Brexit deal and it is here to stay.

There is no doubt however there is an urgent need for changes to make it more workable and to dampen down the political temperature.

If you are a business facing these challenges, the best way to achieve those changes is by engaging with London, Brussels and Dublin.

As we saw in the vaccine row, when Ireland and the UK are united the Commission listens and acts.