Businesses in Northern Ireland have warned that the UK and EU are testing their “faith” in the Brexit deal ahead of key talks aimed at making the agreement work.
In a statement on the eve of the joint committee meeting, the Northern Ireland business Brexit working group said previous talks had been a “missed opportunity” and said the situation would get worse without action.
Brexit minister Lord Frost admitted over the weekend that the Northern Ireland protocol negotiated by Boris Johnson had been more damaging for trade between Great Britain and the province than expected.
The UK has urged the EU to be flexible amid supply issues in Northern Ireland that have seen suppliers simply pull out of the region, and discontent in the loyalist community over the new status quo.
“We cannot afford another missed opportunity at the Joint Committee as we saw earlier in the year,” a spokesperson for the working group said, adding that the protocol was “undoubtedly having an impact and will increasingly do so as more stringent requirements come in from October”.
The agreement puts controls down the Irish Sea with the aim of leaving the border with the republic open. Businesses have so far been largely supportive of the approach as the best out of series of bad options, but the latest comments from the working group suggest that goodwill is not inexhaustible.
Ahead of a videoconference meeting with EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday, Lord Frost faces the EU on one side saying the UK must hold to what it has agreed – and voices in Northern Ireland warning that the situation is untenable.
The UK has unilaterally delayed implementing some of the more stringent parts of the protocol, such as applying controls to supermarket suppliers – a move the EU says is illegal.
EU figures have hit out at the British positions, which in the space of six months has moved from claiming the agreement would be good for Northern Ireland to saying it needs to effectively be changed.
Officials in Brussels say patience is wearing thin after the UK failing to stand by what it had signed, while Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said Lord Frost had been focused more on “media messaging” for a British audience rather than finding a solution. Both sides have been holding non-stop technical talks in recent months to find a solution but nothing substantial has yet emerged.
Meanwhile, France’s minister for EU affairs, Clément Beaune, said the UK minister had “called into question” the protocol signed by both sides.
The French government minister repeated a familiar refrain on the other side of the channel that the protocol was not a problem but in fact a “solution to a problem that we have not created”.
Lord Frost on Monday said: “We have already sent a proposal to the EU – it’s just not one based on alignment, ie losing control over our own laws. We continue to be happy to talk whenever the EU is ready.”
A spokesperson for the NI business Brexit working group said: “We are heartened by the increased level of engagement that we have had in the past few weeks and months, however, we need to see that our faith in this process is justified by the delivery of solutions.
“We need to see that not only are we being heard and understood, but that both the UK and EU are willing to work together to deal with the impact of the Protocol.
“We want to ensure that trading arrangements under the Protocol can work to benefit business and communities across Northern Ireland, now and in the future.”
“In order to build confidence in the process, we need some quick wins that will de-dramatise the current situation in Northern Ireland and show communities that they are being heard; but we also need long-term solutions designed and delivered in tandem business to keep trade flowing.
“There will be opportunities under the Protocol, given the access it gives to both the UK and EU markets, and some businesses are already availing of those opportunities, but for our economy as a whole we need trade frictions to be removed and our key priorities of stability, certainty, simplicity and affordability to be delivered if we are to keep business competitive and keep costs down for families across NI.”