The UK and the EU are on the verge of an agreement to revise the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that sets trade rules for the province.
Rishi Sunak will hold face-to-face talks in the UK with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday with the aim of finalizing a deal.
What are the problems with the NI protocol?
Under the terms of the protocol agreed by Boris Johnson, Northern Ireland is included in the EU’s single market for goods. This means an open trade border on the island of Ireland, but it actually means that a maritime border has been created in its place. Goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are subject to checks and controls.
The deal sparked political instability in Northern Ireland after the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) withdrew from the Stormont assembly in protest at incoming merchandise checks. He also disagreed with the continued role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the region.
Loyalist paramilitaries opposed the protocol and warned that it could destabilize peace in the region.
What were the rules on goods crossing the land border before and after Brexit?
Before Brexit, it was easy to transport goods across this border because both sides followed the same EU rules. After the UK left, special trade arrangements were needed because Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the EU.
The EU has strict food rules and requires border checks when certain products, such as milk and eggs, arrive from non-EU countries.
Why can’t the UK and EU return to land border controls?
It was feared that cameras or border posts could lead to increased Republican activity and a collapse of political consensus. Republican paramilitary groups frequently attacked border posts during the Troubles.
What do we expect to see in the new deal?
Under the current arrangement, goods are checked when they arrive in Northern Ireland and can be transported to Ireland. The UK wants goods entering Northern Ireland to be split into two different lanes – green for those going to Northern Ireland only and red for those destined for Ireland.
A key question for business is the extent to which the greenway will reduce the need for customs bureaucracy. There is also the question of whether the UK government will continue to fund the merchant support service, which helps with the necessary administration.
What have been the sticking points?
There were several. Will companies have to register as trusted merchants to join the greenway? Which companies will qualify for Trusted Trader status? Who will register as a trusted trader – the importer, the transporter or the exporter?
There is also an ongoing dispute over online shopping: will customers in Northern Ireland be required to sign a customs declaration in future if they buy goods from outlets in Britain? And the EU has asked the ECJ to resolve any future disputes, while the UK wants it to have little involvement, the reports claim.
Will any agreement be the end of the protocol fights?
No. Sunak’s troubles could be just beginning, depending on who backs the deal. Will the DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, give its blessing? Will the European Research Group (ERG), the group of Conservative MPs that ousted Theresa May, sign? Johnson, who has already issued warnings about the deal, will he signal his support?