The dreaded topic of Brexit is back in the news this week with the EU expected to publish on Wednesday its basis for fresh negotiations on Northern Ireland’s disputed special trade status.
UK Brexit minister David Frost is expected to pre-empt this EU move by making a landmark speech tomorrow which will set out London’s “red line” preconditions before any word is exchanged in the renewed talks.
Mr Frost’s widely trailed precondition is that the EU Court of Justice can have no role in adjudicating disputes over the North’s special trade status.
Brussels’ lead negotiator, Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has already said many times the EU Court’s role in such matters cannot be set aside.
Thus we have an inbuilt impasse before we even get started, boding very poorly for a hoped-for practical resolution before this year is over.
The revelations have led Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney to express his considerable frustration at this negative development.
Mr Coveney has publicly questioned whether the UK wants “a breakdown in relations” with the European Union rather than a practical solution to the problems in implementing the so-called Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Coveney even engaged in a late-night spat on Twitter with Mr Frost as an indicator of the Government’s frustration.
We know that this issue must be resolved by talks between Brussels and London. But Ireland can bring some intermediary influence to bear on the situation and has shown a willingness to do just that.
During a well-judged visit to Belfast last Friday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin spoke of the need to resolve difficulties facing Northern Ireland’s trade with England, Scotland and Wales. But he also pointed out that a survey by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce earlier this year showed that two out of three of the North’s business people were prepared to try taking advantage of the region’s special trade status which can open trade to both the British and EU markets.
The persistent background threat by London to set aside the North’s special trade status by invoking the so-called Article 16 provisions continue to cast a shadow over the upcoming talks.
The UK government tries to depict itself as a model of forbearance on this, arguing that the conditions for triggering this clause already exist – but it is holding back as a goodwill gesture.
Officials in both Dublin and Brussels are very sceptical about these UK arguments and want instead to find ways of reducing the need for checks and paperwork which are a problem for exporters selling into the North.
Once again we are in a situation where Mr Coveney and his government colleagues must keep their nerve and continue to use as much influence as possible to keep these negotiations focused.
London already knows they are playing a dangerous game here and risking all future co-operation with the EU as a close neighbour.