Disruption to trade in Northern Ireland shows that Brexiteers failed in their effort to take the United Kingdom out of the EU as a single country, a leading Conservative supporter of the Leave campaign has admitted.
Speaking in a House of Commons committee, MP Richard Drax questioned whether the UK will hold together and whether the Northern Ireland protocol negotiated by Boris Johnson would survive for the next five or 10 years.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove admitted that the protocol “is not working”, but rejected the idea that it could lead to the break up of the UK.
But he made clear that Mr Johnson reserves the right to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to override some of its provisions if the EU refuses to accept “refinements” to the agreement reached as part of the Brexit divorce deal in 2019.
Mr Gove is due to hold talks in London on Thursday on the situation in Northern Ireland with EU vice president Maros Sefcovic, amid tensions which saw border inspectors withdrawn for several days after threats to their safety.
Giving evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster admitted that he was “very far from resolving” the problems created by the UK’s transition out of the EU customs union and single market on 1 January, which have seen businesses complain of massive increases in red tape costs and delays.
In a downbeat assessment of the situation, Mr Drax said there was “a lot of anger in Northern Ireland” about the protocol and its creation of a customs border in the Irish Sea.
Warning that Brussels was unlikely to change its position on Northern Ireland, he asked Mr Gove: “Do you think we’ll keep the United Kingdom together or is this a major threat, as some would say, to the future of the United Kingdom?
“Because if you recall, chancellor, you and I and many others worked to take the UK out of the EU as one single country. In that regard, we have failed, have we not?”
Mr Gove responded: “No, I don’t believe so. I think it is the case that the United Kingdom – its constitutional, territorial, political integrity – is unaffected.
“I think it is the case that the that Northern Ireland remains firmly – and the protocol underlines this – within the customs territory of the UK.
“As you quite rightly point out, people in Northern Ireland want to see the UK government resolving these issues. They want, first of all, to see them resolved in partnership with the EU, but they want to see them resolved.”
Asked by Mr Drax if the protocol was “fit for purpose for the next five, 10 or 20 years”, Mr Gove replied: “It’s not working at the moment. It can be made to work. The ultimate decision on whether or not it survives is with the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Gove insisted that the issues which have gummed up trade between Northern Ireland and the British mainland were “resolvable” within the joint committee which oversees the implementation of the protocol.
He has asked Mr Sefcovic for “grace periods” to ease the supply chains to supermarkets in the north and the flow of parcels over the border to be extended to January 2023.
Mr Gove told MPs: “I think these issues are resolvable, it is the case that the flexibility exists in order to resolve them.
“The very fact of having a joint committee is an acknowledgement on the EU’s part – and indeed on ours – that we need to make sure that the operation of the protocol is kept under review and that we refine it in the interest of the people of Northern Ireland.
“So it is possible, absolutely, to resolve these issues. It remains to be seen, of course, if we can do so.”
Mr Gove said that Brussels had “opened a Pandora’s box” by invoking Article 16 last month in a bid to prevent vaccines from continental Europe reaching the UK by a backdoor route through Northern Ireland.
The European Commission had accepted its move was mistaken and withdrawn the threat, said Mr Gove.
But he added that it was not possible for the UK to regard “with serene equanimity” the fact that legislation to implement the vaccine blockade remained in place.
The incident had “eroded trust” and more movement was needed from Brussels to “reset” relations, he told the committee.