February 6, 2023 - 3:18pm

According to reports today, EU negotiators have agreed in principle that goods shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland which are destined to stay in Northern Ireland will not need to go through the same set of border controls as those that will then be moved on to the Republic of Ireland. If true, such an agreement would be a major step forward, meeting at least one of the DUP’s demands for reform. It is, in short, something to be welcomed and cheered as an example of constructive pragmatism.

On the face of it the EU’s move is also a straightforward concession — a decidedly rare occurrence since 2016, given Brussels’s negotiating strength and Britain’s corresponding weakness. Under Theresa May, British officials had proposed such a scheme of “red” and “green” lanes at the border, differentiating between UK and EU-bound goods, but it was rejected. In fact, the reports emerging today suggest not only that the EU is prepared to accept such a system of border controls for manufactured goods, but also for animal and plant products: so-called SPS checks. This was something that the EU had previously insisted was impossible, according to one former UK official with whom I spoke today.

The first point to make is that we have yet to see the details. The EU — like the UK — has a habit of briefing concessions which prove to be less than meets the eye, with many in Brussels still believing that the problem remains, essentially, one of style not substance.

However, if the EU really has changed its position, it is proof of what should be a relatively uncontroversial position: that mistakes were made by both sides in the initial negotiations. If the EU now believes something to be possible that it previously said was impossible, we are entitled to criticise its previous position. 

To be sure, there are plenty of mitigating factors — most notably in the form of Britain’s behaviour. But the initial negotiations were conducted by Theresa May, hardly an intransigent hardliner. The EU rejected practical solutions to the border dilemma under a particularly moderate prime minister. It is only now, amid a potentially permanent threat to power sharing in Northern Ireland, that it has changed its position. This is something for which it should be criticised whether you believed Brexit to be a sensible or a stupid decision.

And yet, as a commentator, if you raise this relatively simple point — to argue, as I do, that Brussels did not take seriously enough the warnings about unionist disquiet — the opponents of Brexit immediately seek to pile all the blame back onto the UK. If only Britain had acted more reasonably from the beginning, its detractors argue, then the EU would have done the same. If only it had not stamped its feet and made demands, Brussels would have shown the kind of pragmatism it is showing today. Britain has certainly made its share of mistakes since 2016, but this reflexive defence of everything EU far too easily lets its negotiators off the hook.

As I have written before, for example, Irish negotiators knew from as early as 2017 that the shape of the agreement being discussed would destabilise the political settlement in Northern Ireland. Yet all sides pushed on. It is certainly true that any solution to the Northern Irish border dilemma might have led us to where we are today, but that does not excuse the failure to agree to the solutions at which we are only now arriving. 

Neither London nor Brussels did enough to ensure the final agreement was anywhere near delicate and pragmatic enough to deal with the special reality of Northern Ireland. Remember, even the Protocol itself has not ever been applied in full because to do so would be unacceptable. Almost everyone now agrees with this. The reality is that the Protocol was never fit for purpose and for this both sides must take responsibility, whatever your feelings about Brexit itself.


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague