UK and EU will clinch Northern Ireland Protocol deal if both can claim victory

The sabres always rattle loudest just before a deal is struck.

The Brexit briefing wars are back in full swing. Both sides are taking potshots at each other from their apparently entrenched positions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

There are threats of trade wars, sausage wars, EU courts and the nuclear option of triggering Article 16 of the treaty.

Lord Frost and Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, even found time late on Saturday night to indulge in a social media spat on Twitter.

At first glance, it would appear that UK-EU negotiations over the Protocol are doomed to fail before they have even begun.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same in Brexit.

Precedent for British red lines turning pink

Back in 2019, the British Government insisted again and again it was willing to trigger a no deal Brexit rather than sign up to the Irish backstop. At the last minute, the UK agreed to put a customs border in the Irish Sea.

A year later, the UK Government walked out of trade negotiations with Brussels only to walk back in again and agree a trade deal. Once again it claimed victory.

Twice before the UK has refused to press the nuclear button on negotiations with the EU.

There is certainly precedent for British red lines to go pink at the last minute to clinch an agreement. As for the EU, it has shown it is willing to move at the last to scoop the deal.

Both things will have to happen for there to be a deal.

The UK demand for the European Court of Justice to lose oversight of the implementation of EU law in Northern Ireland is a tough ask for Brussels.

Mr Coveney is convinced it is a ploy to deliberately set up the negotiations to fail and provide a pretext for tearing up the protocol. 

Far more likely is that the demand will ultimately be sacrificed for a concession elsewhere or a fudge will be found to keep the EU court at greater arm’s length.

Lord Frost may want a significant overhaul of the protocol, but he is not calling for it to be ditched completely. The fundamentals of the agreement remain unquestioned.

Northern Ireland will remain part of the EU’s customs territory, the border in the Irish Sea will stay and the province will continue to follow some 300 Single Market rules.

Lord Frost has also made it clear he will not trigger Article 16 until the latest round of talks with Brussels are exhausted in early November. He will give the talks every chance to succeed. 

Boris Johnson will not want a row over Northern Ireland with the EU to overshadow the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow.

The European Commission will present counter proposals on the protocol on Wednesday. Moves to minimise customs checks blamed for a chilling effect on GB-NI trade are expected.

Some grace periods in the protocol, for example in medicines, are expected to be made permanent. Brussels’ offer of a sausage clause, exempting British bangers from a ban on sale of non-EU chilled meats in Northern Irish shops, is a positive sign.

UK and EU no longer singing from completely different hymn sheets

The UK and EU are at least discussing the same issues rather than singing from completely different hymn sheets, as has often been the case in the past. 

These are significant steps from the Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who is under pressure from EU capitals to be tough on Britain.

They won’t go far enough for the UK but no one makes their best offer before even sitting down at the negotiating table.

Lord Frost has demanded "substantial" changes to the treaty, while Mr Sefcovic says solutions can be found but the protocol cannot be renegotiated wholesale. 

Both sides want a deal and to be seen to have fought hard for it. 

The negotiators simply need to carve out enough common ground to allow both sides to claim victory.

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