EU Withdrawal Agreement

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:46 pm on 9th December 2020.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 12:46 pm, 9th December 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House, and indeed the people of Northern Ireland, on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Throughout 2020, we have worked intensively to ensure that the withdrawal agreement, in particular the Northern Ireland protocol, will be fully operational on 1 January 2021. Our aims, and the proportionate and pragmatic way that we intended to pursue them, were set out in the Command Paper that we published in May, “The UK’s Approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol”. This set out three key commitments that we believed needed to be respected in all scenarios.

We had to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses retained unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory had to be protected, and that meant that goods that stayed in the UK were not subject to tariffs. We had to ensure that the important Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade flows, on which lives and livelihoods depend, were not disrupted; we needed to ensure a smooth flow of trade with no need for new physical customs infrastructure.

I am pleased to say that on Monday, the European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and I, as co-chairs of the Joint Committee set up to negotiate the implementation of the protocol, came to an agreement in principle on a deal that meets all those commitments and puts the people of Northern Ireland first. I would like to begin by paying tribute to Maroš Šefčovič and his team for their pragmatism, collaborative spirit and determination to get a deal done that would work for both sides. I would also like to thank the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all the Members of the Northern Ireland Executive for their crucial intervention at significant moments to ensure that the rights of the people of Northern Ireland were protected.

I turn now to the first Government commitment. This deal protects unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to their most important market. As the Prime Minister underlined, this had to be protected in full, and that meant removing any prospect of export declarations for Northern Ireland goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. That is what our agreement will do. There will be no additional requirements placed on Northern Ireland businesses for these movements, with the very limited and specific exceptions of trade in endangered species and conflict diamonds.

On the second commitment, the deal safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory. As recently as July, the Commission had envisaged a default tariff scenario in which

“all goods brought into Northern Ireland” were

“considered to be at risk…and are as such subject to the Common Customs Tariff.”

If that had been implemented, that would have raised the prospect of a 58% tariff on a pint of milk going from Scotland to a supermarket in Strabane or a 96% tariff on a bag of sugar going from Liverpool to the shops of Belfast. As we have repeatedly made clear, this could never have been an acceptable outcome.

Instead, I am pleased to say that under the agreement that we have reached, Northern Ireland businesses selling to consumers or using goods in Northern Ireland will be free of all tariffs, whether that is Nissan cars from Sunderland or lamb from Montgomeryshire. Internal UK trade will be protected as we promised, whether we have a free trade agreement with the EU or not.

Thirdly, this deal would keep goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in January and provide some necessary additional flexibilities. It protects Northern Ireland’s supermarket supplies. We heard throughout the year that traders needed time to adapt their systems. That is why we have a grace period for supermarkets to update their procedures. Our agreement prevents any disruption at the end of the transition period to the movement of chilled meats. British sausages will continue to make their way to Belfast and Ballymena in the new year, and we have time for reciprocal agreements between the UK and the EU on agrifood, which can be discussed in the months ahead. This deal also protects the flow of medicines and vet medicines into Northern Ireland. That means we will grant industry a period of up to 12 months to adapt to new rules under the protocol, which will avoid any disruption to critical medical supplies.

So those are three commitments entered into, and three commitments that we have upheld. But this agreement goes further still, providing additional flexibility that will enable us to make the most of the opportunities that face us as the transition period ends. As you know, Mr Speaker, this House has been concerned about the risk of so-called reach-back from the state aid provisions that the protocol applies. The concern that many colleagues had was that a company in Great Britain with only a peripheral link to commercial operations in Northern Ireland could be caught inadvertently by the tests within the protocol’s text. That would not have been acceptable, nor was it what the protocol had envisaged. That is why I am pleased that the agreement we have addresses that risk. It means that firms in Great Britain stay outside state aid rules where there is no genuine and direct link to Northern Ireland and no real foreseeable impact on Northern Ireland-EU trade. That is an important step forward in dealing with an issue raised by a number of Members across the House.

This deal also ensures that Northern Ireland will be out of the common agricultural policy, which means that the Northern Ireland Executive have full freedom to set their own agricultural subsidies for Northern Ireland’s farmers. It also means appropriate and flexible arrangements, so that more than £400 million of spending each year is totally exempt from state aid rules. As well as that, the deal ensures that support for fishermen in Northern Ireland will be exempt from EU state aid rules, which means more than £15 million of flexibility for Northern Ireland’s fishermen over the next five years. And, of course, Northern Ireland’s services industries are totally outside the scope of the protocol and its state aid measures.

The agreement also respects the protocol provisions, which were endorsed by Parliament, that allow some EU officials to be present at Northern Ireland ports as UK authorities carry out our own procedures. Let me be clear: there will be no Belfast mini embassy or mission, as some in the EU originally sought, and the EU officials will not have any powers to carry out checks themselves. There will instead be sensible, practical arrangements, with co-operation and reciprocal data sharing, so that both sides can have confidence in these unique arrangements. We also want to leave no doubt about our ongoing commitment to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary will set out in the coming days further measures of financial support to help businesses and communities to prosper and thrive from the end of the year and beyond.

We have been able to deliver a package which now means that the protocol can be implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate way. It takes account of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, and it protects the interests of both the EU single market and, more importantly, the territorial and constitutional integrity of the whole United Kingdom. This agreement will be approved officially at a Joint Committee meeting in the coming days. Of course, the agreement we have reached also enables the Government to withdraw clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and avoids the need for any additional provisions in the Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill. Having put beyond doubt the primacy of the sovereignty of this place as we leave the EU, we rest safe in the knowledge that such provisions are no longer required.

We know that we now need to get on and give further clarity to business as to the specifics of what this deal means for them and how it will work in practice, and we will do that through the publication of further guidance. That will sit alongside the ongoing intensive work that we will take forward to implement the protocol. Above all, we will always work with the interests of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland in mind, as this agreement and the important flexibilities it will provide reflects. We must all remember that, if the protocol is to work, it must work for the whole community in Northern Ireland. Whether it is to be maintained in the future, as the protocol itself sets out, is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide through the democratic consent mechanism that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister negotiated. On that critical note of the primacy of democracy, I commend this statement to the House.