Rows over an EU office in Belfast are really over something deeperby Jonathan Lis / May 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
After death and taxes, a dull inevitability of life is chaos over Brexit. As Britain now overtakes Italy for the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll, we should perhaps not be surprised by the government’s preternatural incompetence. And yet a row in the last week has highlighted the other issue it has so comprehensively mishandled. While the political and media establishment focuses on the pandemic, Brexit’s most sensitive element still exists and is still unresolved: Northern Ireland.
The specifics of the row focus on the presence of an EU office in Belfast once the transition period ends. Despite the global chaos and obvious priorities elsewhere, this is still slated for 31st December, and thus the issue demands urgent attention. According to the Irish broadcaster RTE, senior EU official Helga Schmid wrote to the UK government in February, requesting a permanent base in Northern Ireland to supervise the implementation of the withdrawal agreement—specifically, the vexed issue of customs checks. After the UK flatly refused, Schmid wrote again, noting that Article 12 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the WA granted the EU rights, and it was “necessarily within the discretion of the EU to determine the extent to which it wishes to exercise these rights.” She made clear that this required a greater role for technical experts.
On 27th April, minister Penny Mordaunt replied that Article 12 simply gave EU officials the right to “be present during the activities of UK authorities related to the implementation and application of the Protocol,” and that did not equate to a permanent delegation. Mordaunt argued that such a base would not only constitute “joint controls” over intra-UK customs, but prove divisive in the context of upholding community relations and the Good Friday Agreement. Certainly, the Democratic Unionist Party is opposed.
But the plot then thickened. RTE journalist Tony Connelly revealed that UK and EU officials had exchanged letters on the subject in February 2019, in which the UK had approved the ideas of offices in Belfast, and also Edinburgh and Cardiff. From the EU’s perspective, the circumstances were unchanged and indeed an office was now backed up in law.
Who, then, is correct? Article 12 permits the presence of EU officials in Northern Ireland but does not explicitly mandate a permanent office. The protocol does, however, make clear…