Nearly forty years ago Margaret Thatcher swung her handbag at the intransigent bureaucrats and politicians in the EU Commission and won back a massive rebate on the overpayments which the British taxpayers were making to the EU Budget. For this and other acts of political courage and determination she earned the reputation and title of the Iron Lady.
Our Foreign Secretary has modelled herself on Mrs Thatcher. From her tough talking to tank driving, her pride in her country and promotion of it as trade secretary, she has won the admiration of the Conservative Party faithful and is now one of the highest regarded cabinet ministers. However her popularity is not only based on the image she has promoted but also on the effective way she delivered over 70 trade deals in the short period after we left the EU, so silencing the Remain critics who argued that leaving the EU would leave the UK isolated, poorer and bereft of export markets.
She now faces another massive challenge as she starts talks with Maroš Šefčovič. She has to replace the NI Protocol with arrangements which undo the damage to the NI economy, and more importantly ensure that the protocol arrangements which have made NI an annex of the EU, and undermined the sovereignty of the UK government in that part of the UK, are removed. In simple terms she has to demand and secure an agreement which restores NI to being a full part of the UK.
These negotiations will be a test as to whether she is an Iron Lady or a tinfoil cut out. In the face of an EU team which still has as its remit the task of punishing the UK for daring to leave the EU and using NI as a warning to other countries that a severe price will be exacted against them if they have the temerity to dare break free, the Foreign Secretary will have to use all her considerable negotiating skills and demonstrate her determination. There is much at stake. In her hands rest the responsibility of getting Brexit done and undoing the massive damage done to the integrity of the UK by the NI Protocol.
It is useful to repeat the extent of that damage. Much is known of the day to day checks which now have to take place on trade within the UK when goods flow from GB to NI. To date they have cost NI £850m, and that sum increases by £25m per week. Millions of pounds of business is lost to GB firms every week as NI trade is diverted to the Republic of Ireland. Exports to NI from the RoI have increased by 50%. Previously this trade would have been with GB firms.
Furthermore, consumers in NI are now unable to purchase goods from companies in their own country and customs and taxes are levied on a whole range of goods supplied to NI. If the government decides to use the fiscal freedom which Brexit gives to reduce VAT on energy bills, the measure could not apply in NI because NI remains under EU VAT rules.
The economic damage is nothing compared to the constitutional damage caused by the Protocol. Indeed it stems from it. Whilst nominally NI remains part of the UK, in effect UK laws as they relate to manufacturing, agriculture and fiscal policies cannot apply to NI if they are in conflict with EU law. All past and future EU laws in these areas will apply in NI without any input by NI politicians or the UK government. Furthermore their application will be overseen by the ECJ.
The Foreign Secretary’s objective has to be the undoing of this injustice and the full restoration of the sovereignty of the UK Parliament over the whole of the UK. If she has to implement the threat of acting unilaterally as she is entitled to do under the Withdrawal Agreement, then she must have the resolve to do so. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.
She doesn’t need to be intransigent because there is a way in which the sovereignty and economic integrity of the UK can be protected while at the same time safeguarding the EU single market from the miniscule amount of trade which enters it through NI. The Mutual Enforcement proposals developed and put forward by the Centre for Brexit Policy, the workability of which have never been seriously challenged, should be the bedrock for a replacement of the NI Protocol.
It doesn’t matter whether Liz Truss swings her handbag, fires a salvo from her tank or uses her considerable negotiating charms; the important thing is that she does not leave these negotiations without undoing the damage which the NI Protocol has done to the UK and to the political stability in NI.
Rt Hon Sammy Wilson MP is a Director at the Centre for Brexit Policy