The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-05235, in the name of Angus Robertson, on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or place an R in the chat function as soon as possible.
I note that one member who is scheduled to participate in the debate is not in the chamber, which is more than a little disappointing; I will expect an explanation for that.
The United Kingdom Government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday. The European Union considers the bill illegal. Many in the Commons also doubt its legality; others warn that it will undermine the UK’s international reputation; and still more point out that the bill fails to bring the Democratic Unionist Party back into power sharing in Northern Ireland, or to advance trade talks with either the EU or the United States of America. However, not a single Conservative MP voted against the legislation.
I will focus my remarks on three issues that are of utmost interest to all colleagues in the Parliament: first, the issue of legislative consent, which Conservative members seemed to have forgotten about when they told us last week that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was none of our business; secondly, the question of international law, which itself is related to whether the Scottish Government can recommend consent; and thirdly, the potential direct impact and damage that will be caused to people in Scotland, should the bill become law.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a key part of the withdrawal agreement that the UK Prime Minister signed with the EU in 2019. Indeed, without the protocol, it is clear that there would not have been a deal at all between the EU and the UK. So good was that deal, according to Boris Johnson, that when he signed it, he hailed it as a “fantastic moment” and went on to fight a general election on the basis that he had “got Brexit done”.
However, the bill unilaterally disapplies, or affords the UK Government powers to disapply, the legislation that enforces parts of the protocol in the UK.
In other words, the UK Government wants to tear up that self-same apparently fantastic deal and renege on the UK Government’s commitment and international obligations. It wants the Scottish Government to recommend consent for the bill that does the tearing up, and for this Parliament to agree that recommendation.
T o address the first issue directly, it is inconceivable that the Scottish Government could recommend agreeing to such a legislative consent motion.
That brings me to my second point, on the question of international law. It is the opinion of all—except, seemingly, the UK Government—that the legislation, if it were implemented, would breach international law. The bill deliberately sets the UK on an entirely avoidable collision course with our fellow Europeans in the EU, and it leaves the UK increasingly isolated in the court of world opinion.
Following the introduction of the bill, European Commission vice-president, Maros Šefcovic, stated:
“Let there be no doubt: there is no legal, nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement ... Let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.”
He was not alone in that view. That view was echoed across European capitals, and it is held not just in Europe. Senior US officials do not
“believe that unilateral steps are going to be the most effective way to address the challenges facing the implementation of the protocol”.
Most important of all, perhaps, is the view from Northern Ireland. More than half the members of the Northern Ireland legislative Assembly have rejected the UK Government’s actions as “utterly reckless”. They are reckless in terms of negotiating with the EU, reckless with regard to the United States and reckless with regard to the Belfast Good Friday agreement.
Legal commentators tend to agree that the proposals could breach international law. That is deeply concerning, but not surprising. It is not surprising from a Government that, in 2020, brazenly said that its legislation to amend the withdrawal agreement would
“break international law in a ... limited and specific way”—[
House of Commons
, 8 September 2020; Vol 679, c 509.]
In reference to the legality of the proposed legislation, let me turn to the Labour amendment. Obviously, the bill would need to complete its parliamentary passage and be commenced by the UK Government to breach international law. The legal position would depend on conditions at the time, as well as other factors and arguments about which we do not currently have full information. However, on that basis, the Government is content to accept the Labour amendment.
Let me turn to the Scottish interests. It is clear that the bill damages even further the UK Government’s relationship with our largest trading partner. It causes business and investor uncertainty, and it risks sparking a damaging trade war. I cannot think of anything more irresponsible than launching that confrontational action in the middle of a cost of living crisis, when the UK is at real risk of entering a recession.
It has been estimated that, so far, Brexit has cost the UK economy £31 billion. We know that Scotland’s total trade with the EU was 16 per cent lower in 2021 than it was in 2019, while its trade with non-EU countries fell by only 4 per cent in the same period.
Many of the difficulties that Scottish businesses face are a direct result of the UK Government’s decision to adopt a hard Brexit outside of the single market and the customs union. When our supply chains interact with EU businesses—be it for materials, finished goods or labour and skills—that approach has made it harder and more costly for businesses to operate.
Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge, has warned of even tougher times ahead and the risk of iconic Scottish products such as whisky, salmon and cashmere being affected in the event of a trade war. That is hugely concerning. Scottish salmon exports to the EU alone are worth £370 million and account for two thirds of the sector’s exports. Any retaliatory measures for the sector would be expected to impact many of Scotland’s rural communities and supply chain operators.
Clearly, in embarking on an utterly senseless and self-defeating course of action, the UK Government has provoked an unwinnable conflict, with likely catastrophic consequences for many people. Scotland cannot, and must not, accept that.
The protocol allows Northern Ireland to be simultaneously in the EU’s single market and in the UK’s internal market. It is disingenuous for the UK Government to claim that the protocol is doing harm to Northern Ireland’s economy. Just a month ago, Stephen Kelly, the head of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, stated the exact opposite. He said:
“Every piece of evidence presented so far shows a positive impact”.
That view is echoed by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which found that Northern Ireland’s economic output had recently outperformed the UK average. Similarly, the chief analyst of the Ulster Bank has noted that the number of manufacturing jobs in Northern Ireland is growing four times faster than the UK average.
I will indeed, Presiding Officer.
Just last week, the Resolution Foundation estimated that Northern Ireland will be the least impacted UK region in the long run because of its access to the single market.
The motion, as amended by the Labour amendment, asks the Parliament to take note of these very serious concerns, and to urge the UK Government to draw back from its course of reckless confrontation, withdraw the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, and restart negotiations with the EU immediately with a view to mutually agreeable, durable solutions. I ask members to support the motion.
That the Parliament agrees that it is fundamentally unacceptable for the UK Government to unilaterally disapply key parts of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, the signing of which the Prime Minister hailed as a “fantastic moment”; further agrees that by proposing this course of action the UK Government is risking a disastrous trade dispute with the European Union, with damaging consequences for Scotland in the midst of a cost of living crisis and at a time when the UK is in danger of falling into recession, and calls, therefore, on the UK Government to withdraw the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and restart negotiations with the EU immediately.
I am genuinely grateful to the Scottish Government for bringing the debate to the chamber. It is an important debate, not least in terms of the integrity of the United Kingdom and regarding our wider relations with the European Union. In such a debate, it is tempting to re-fight old battles and revisit old arguments, whether on the Brexit vote itself, or on the never-ending saga of votes in the UK Parliament between 2017 and 2019. Opinions vary hugely in this chamber, and there were and still are passionate views about the UK’s decision to leave the EU, even six years later. There can be no doubting the seismic nature of Brexit and its impact on Scotland and the wider UK.
However, simply discussing how we got here will not take us forward. In the here and now, we should focus on three issues. The first is the state of the protocol itself and the problems that exist with its implementation. The second is the need for a settlement that protects peace in Northern Ireland and restores power sharing. The third is a genuine and sincere attempt by both the UK and the EU to reopen negotiations. I will look at each of those issues in turn.
The protocol is not working. Rightly or wrongly, regardless of what the intentions were in October 2019, whether we voted for it or not, it is not working. There are four key issues at play, and I will touch on them briefly. There are problems with current customs processes because of the checks on paperwork that have been imposed by the protocol. According to the Consumer Council, more than 100 UK retailers have now stopped supplying Northern Ireland. There is undoubtedly an impact on business. Modelling by the Fraser of Allander Institute and the University of Strathclyde shows an additional average cost of 8 to 9 per cent for goods imported into Northern Ireland.
Secondly, there are regulatory issues that place barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that could increase. Part of the problem with that is that goods that are entering Northern Ireland needed to comply with EU rules, even if they will not enter the single market.
Bearing it in mind that the EU has addressed and has proposed in joint negotiations the opportunity to do exactly what the member suggests, such as cutting paperwork in half, reducing the number of inspections and, indeed, simplifying to a single three-page document some of the paperwork, why on earth does he think that the UK Government is not doing what his amendment says, which is to have a joint negotiation to make any required improvements?
As I say, I would ideally like for negotiations to continue. On the subject of regulation, which Fiona Hyslop raised, in March last year a civil servant at Stormont said that the number of regulatory checks that are required on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from GB equates to 20 per cent of the total number of checks that are undertaken by the entire EU.
Thirdly, there are tax and spend issues. EU state aid rules still apply in Northern Ireland meaning that businesses there do not enjoy the same amount of support that businesses in Great Britain now benefit from. Businesses in Northern Ireland will not benefit from UK VAT reforms or reductions.
I am very sorry but I simply do not have time.
Finally, there are concerns about governance. Unlike other aspects of the EU-UK deal, where disputes can be settled through arbitration, any disputes arising from the protocol can only be settled by the European Court of Justice.
Those are the issues that the bill seeks to address. That is why the suggested proposals in the bill, such as the red and green lanes, the dual regulatory regime, and the governance are, at the very least, worth considering. The green lane, in particular, should assist on the GB side, especially in Scotland, when goods are exported to Northern Ireland. That might also be beneficial to Scottish businesses.
I am very sorry; I have only two minutes left.
Various proposals in the bill will be welcomed in Northern Ireland. Stuart Anderson, head of public affairs at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that some proposals would be helpful, especially to consumer-facing business.
Secondly, I spoke about the need for a settlement that protects peace. Again, whether we like it or not, the protocol is inextricably linked to the political situation in Northern Ireland. Many of us grew up, even at a remote distance, in the shadow of the conflict that preceded the Good Friday agreement. Maintaining stable social and political conditions in Northern Ireland is obviously of paramount importance for us all. That means obviating the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland and ensuring as frictionless trade as possible. It also means taking action to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland.
We cannot magically wish the concerns of the unionist community away. The community has a right to be heard and is entitled to air its anxiety. Northern Ireland does not have majoritarianism, so both communities need to be on board. Critically, across the spectrum, none of the parties in Northern Ireland is saying that the protocol is perfect. Flexibility is required from everyone: not only the UK Government and the Democratic Unionist Party, but the EU and the whole range of democratic parties in Northern Ireland.
Finally, there needs to be a genuine attempt to re-open negotiations, which is the point that Fiona Hyslop made in her intervention. I was in Brussels with the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee only last week. We had many conversations in private, which I will not repeat. However, it was clear that discussions are stuck and need rapidly to become unstuck. Both sides share responsibility, not just the UK Government. The EU has also shown inflexibility in its approach to the regulation of goods, as I mentioned, and it must change its negotiating mandate. It reopens negotiated agreements all the time. Where there is a will there is a way.
I will close by paraphrasing our amendment. The protocol is not working as intended. We urge both the UK Government and the EU to come to a negotiated settlement so that these very real problems can be resolved. That is how we protect both the integrity of the UK and the EU single market, and that is how we ensure a stable settlement that will safeguard peace in Northern Ireland and allow a return to power sharing—a situation that, unequivocally, we should all want to see.
I move amendment S6M-05235.2, to leave out from “it is fundamentally unacceptable” to end and insert:
“the Northern Ireland protocol is not working as intended, and calls on both the UK Government and the EU to come to a negotiated settlement so that these problems can be resolved and thereby protect both the integrity of the UK and the EU Single Market, and at the same time ensure that a stable settlement is delivered that safeguards peace in Northern Ireland and allows a return to power-sharing government in the Northern Ireland Executive.”
When I was first sworn into the Parliament, I would never have thought that we would discuss a bill that would actively break international law. The Tories’ Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will not only break international law, but further damage the UK’s global reputation as a trusted partner, risk worsening the cost of living crisis by throwing up further barriers to trade, and create further divisions at a time when we need to get on with our neighbours in Europe and pull together in the face of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and the Northern Ireland protocol should come as no surprise to Boris Johnson and his Conservative Government, because they negotiated the protocol. They agreed it and whipped their MPs to vote for it. The Northern Ireland protocol is a product of the Prime Minister and his Conservative UK Government, and the fact that they are now seeking to usurp it demonstrates their incompetence, past and present. What confidence can we have in a Government that cannot get the job done right first time around?
I was struck by the Foreign Secretary yesterday telling the
Belfast Telegraph that she has no regrets in voting for the protocol at the time, and that the issues that have arisen were unexpected, even though she now says that the problems were “baked into the protocol”. It begs the question as to what work the Conservatives did to look at a protocol that the Foreign Secretary now thinks is disastrous. What kind of risk assessment did they do?
Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states:
“A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”
The bill does exactly that.
In the bill, the Tories are seeking to unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol through UK domestic law.
It is ironic that I agree with Donald Cameron’s suggestion that the UK Government and the EU should get round the table to negotiate. The bill will not help with that.
There is an issue with the legal principle of the doctrine of necessity, which we may come on to later in the debate, but it is clear that the doctrine of necessity applies only when a country is facing grave and imminent peril. The UK Government’s former legal adviser Jonathan Jones has already said that the EU would be completely unpersuaded by that argument. The bill shows that, once again, the Tory Government is totally detached from the real issues of the day, and is hellbent on furthering its own political agenda, with no regard for the reputational risks to which it is opening up our country. It speaks volumes that the former Prime Minister Theresa May warned that unilateral attempts to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland protocol and the Brexit deal are not legal.
Article 16 of the protocol allows the UK or the EU to invoke restricted safeguard measures unilaterally when serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties arise because of the operation of the protocol. I agree with Donald Cameron—it is time for the UK Government and the EU to get round the table and talk about the issue. The analysis of Mark Elliott, a professor of public law at the University of Cambridge, is that the UK Government’s legal position paper shows that it has no intention of using that provision.
The Northern Ireland protocol was put in place to ensure that the Tory agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU protected the Good Friday agreement. To date, far too many Tory MPs have shown complete disregard for the Good Friday agreement in the Brexit process, and we can see that here from the very top of the UK Tory Government.
Scottish Labour will not support legislation that not only does not respect international law, but threatens the hard-won Good Friday agreement. Negotiation is needed. The irony is that although the Tory party claims to stand for businesses, businesses in Northern Ireland have been able to work with the protocol. The bill risks creating new barriers during a cost of living crisis, and it will only bring more uncertainty for the people of Northern Ireland, who are trying to make the protocol work in the best way that they can. Surely it is far better to negotiate on food and agricultural standards than to raise trade barriers.
The bill would break international law and have a devastating impact on families and businesses in Northern Ireland, Scotland and across the UK. The UK Government must focus on negotiation with the EU. That is the route to ensuring that international law is respected and the Good Friday agreement is protected. The UK Government must get round the table with the EU and negotiate in good faith.
I move amendment S6M-05235.3, to insert after “recession”:
“; condemns that the Bill breaks international law and risks the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement”.
We will support the Government motion and the Labour amendment.
The European Union had a largely unrecognised, but central, role in the Northern Ireland peace process. It formed a cradle within which peace could thrive. As Ireland and the UK were both members of the EU, it allowed a way forward to develop. The border between north and south could be removed so that there could be free movement of goods and people across Ireland and with the rest of the United Kingdom.
It was reckless of the man who is now Prime Minister, and the leave campaign, to ignore the extensive warnings about the consequences of removing that cradle. The Prime Minister was dishonest to tell people that he had found a good solution, because there is no good solution. Whether the border is between north and south or east and west, there needs to be a border, and borders cost. The protocol that Boris Johnson condemns today is the one that he praised three years ago. The more the UK wishes to diverge from the EU, the greater the pressure there will be on that border.
I would love to be able to say that there is a good solution to the problems that have been caused to Northern Ireland by our exit from the EU, but there simply is not one. There are least worst options. The protocol may be the least worst option, but it is hardly a model for success, which makes it all the more surprising that the First Minister holds it up as a template to aspire to. The chaos, the tension and the disruption make the protocol a model, according to Nicola Sturgeon.
Last April, the First Minister was interviewed by
Irish Times and was very optimistic about the Northern Ireland protocol and, as always, what it could mean for her and her campaign for independence. She said:
“yes, I think that does offer some template”,
and that it would address
“any practical difficulties for businesses trading across the England-Scotland border.”
To hitch her independence ambitions to anything from Northern Ireland was brave.
Not just now.
To hitch those ambitions to the wreckage of Brexit was remarkable.
Last month, the First Minister warned that the protocol could trigger a trade war with the European Union and tip the UK into recession.
The First Minister’s model for Scotland has careered towards a trade war in just 12 months.
I will in a second.
That is some trajectory, and serves in my mind only to emphasise the chaos that would ensue were we ever to break up from the United Kingdom. That chaos would only mushroom if Scotland joined the European Union—more so if Scotland dramatically diverged, as is its wish, from UK standards on immigration, business and trade. Pressure on the border would be certain to grow, just like the pressure on the border in the Irish Sea would if the UK diverges from the EU. That throws into sharp focus the fact that the SNP is not ready with a worked-out plan for independence.
The Prime Minister is playing fast and loose with the peace process, international law, our relations with our trading partners and good local democracy in Northern Ireland—there is no doubt about that—but he has done so because he is in an impossible position of his own making. It looks like the SNP is trying to make the same mistake all over again.
When is an international treaty not an international treaty? Ordinarily, there should be a punchline inserted at this point, but unfortunately the joke is on us in so many ways that it is embarrassing and dangerous.
I attended the Quality Meat Scotland breakfast meeting last week at the Royal Highland Show, where the First Minister gave a well-received address to the farming and red-meat industry attendees. However, what I found incredibly interesting that morning was the presentation from Professor John Gilliland, a former president of the Ulster Farmers Union and chair of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rural climate change forum. His talk was interesting for several reasons, but one thing that really struck me was that, almost in his first sentence, he congratulated us in Scotland on having a viable, working First Minister who works on behalf of the people of Scotland, because people would love to have that in his part of the world.
The Northern Ireland protocol was supposed to be the tool that allowed Northern Ireland to have the functioning Parliament that the majority voted for, but here we are debating the fact that, once again, throwaway lines and promises from Boris Johnson have proven to be nothing more than his usual speak-first, think-never routine. That did not matter as much when he was editor of
It appears that the Tories have little respect for international treaties, whether they were signed in 1706 or 2020, and they think that it is okay to ignore or break them and carry on regardless of the consequences. In the words of Maroš Šefcovic,
“the UK government tabled legislation, confirming its intention to unilaterally break international law.”
Although it is bad for the people of Northern Ireland to leave them without a functioning executive, it is also extremely damaging to us here in Scotland, because it raises the serious potential of a trade war with the EU during a Tory-inflicted cost of living crisis, and puts at risk the vital trade of goods between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I know that the Tories are having difficulty this week with the concept of a political leader delivering on a promise that was made during an election campaign, but let me remind them of what their party leader said to the Democratic Unionist Party conference in Northern Ireland in 2018:
“We would be damaging the fabric of the union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on top of those extra regulatory checks down the Irish Sea that are already envisaged in the withdrawal agreement.”
He also said:
“I have to tell you no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement.”
However, less than a year later, Mr Johnson put a border down the Irish Sea.
I have no problem with damaging the fabric of the union, particularly in relation to Scotland, but I have a huge problem with a London-centric Tory Government that thinks that it can play fast and loose with the politics of Northern Ireland and the economic impact that its decisions have on Scotland.
Boris Johnson does not care about Northern Ireland. He did not go there and make that—empty—promise because he believed in it. He did it because it was expedient for him, for his party and for his Government to do so at that time.
“great success for Northern Ireland and the whole country”,
and that it was
“fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement.”—[
House of Commons
, 19 October 2019; Vol 666, c 581.]
Now, the UK Government is saying that legislation to unilaterally override the protocol is
“necessary ... to preserve peace and stability in Northern Ireland.”
The man has more faces than a dice.
I do not raise the issue because the Northern Ireland protocol was the best solution for Northern Ireland. Like the majority of people in Northern Ireland and Scotland, who voted to remain in the EU, I think that recognising and enabling people’s democratic wish would have been the best solution for Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, as I said, the Tories have a problem with recognising democratic mandates.
I quote Maroš Šefcovic again. He said:
“The Protocol was the solution agreed with the UK government to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protect the integrity of the EU’s Single Market.
We know that there are some practical difficulties in implementing it ... That is why my team and I had been engaging extensively with all stakeholders on the ground, resulting in a set of solutions put forward in October—showing genuine and unprecedented flexibility.”
The EU is showing “genuine and unprecedented flexibility”—
The member for Airdrie and Shotts and I are veterans of the 2017-19 UK Parliament. We had front-row seats for the tragic and horrible spectacle of the constitutional vandalism that the Conservative Party perpetrated on this country. I was nine years old when the Good Friday agreement was signed, so I have only ever known peace in Northern Ireland. It was, therefore, appalling to see peace and my generation’s prospects being threatened.
In wrestling with the difficulties of the 2016 Brexit vote and considering how to make sense of it and deliver a workable solution, it quickly became clear that there were only three options. The whole UK could remain in the single market and customs union—or something that was very closely aligned to that—or there could be a hard border in one of two locations: between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or between the island of Ireland and Great Britain.
The Conservatives, under Theresa May and later Boris Johnson, made three promises that were logically incompatible—I summarise that as the Brexit trilemma. They promised that we could leave the single market and customs union but have no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That was simply impossible to achieve: something had to give. The fantasy that things could be squared off was impossible to deal with in that session of Parliament, which led to the disastrous outcome of the 2019 general election and the no-deal—in all but name—Brexit with which we ended up.
Option A was the 2019 withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol that Johnson negotiated with the EU, which broke the promise that there would be no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Johnson lied to the Democratic Unionist Party—his erstwhile partners in sustaining the Conservatives in power—when the UK agreed to a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea, with checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Now, Johnson brazenly and outrageously denies that he agreed to that and, to try to cover his tracks, he threatens to renege on the deal. If the UK reneges on the withdrawal agreement with the EU, that will undermine the Good Friday agreement by forcing a return to a border on the island of Ireland, thus breaking promise 3, which was that there would be no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In effect, that will result in a no-deal Brexit and economic disaster for the UK—and, of course, the United States will never sign a trade deal with the UK if it does that.
The UK will then try to claim that the EU is to blame for this disaster and for that border. That is the most outrageous lie that has been perpetrated on the people of this country—including people who perhaps voted in good faith against what they thought was EU bureaucracy and so on, but without fully understanding the implications of the problem that would be faced with Ireland.
Theresa May’s 2018 deal with the Irish backstop pretended to achieve the fantasy of squaring off the situation, but in reality it would have kept the whole UK de facto in the EU customs union and single market for goods, if no other solution could be found, which would have broken the promise to leave the single market and customs union. Effectively, Theresa May was held hostage by her back benchers.
That deal was rejected by the UK Parliament. I am proud to say that I worked as much as possible with colleagues across parties to achieve as much as we could by way of compromise to secure agreement to remain in the customs union and single market and to achieve that alignment. There was Ken Clarke’s proposal, for instance. We worked as much as we could on that. However, the vandals on the back benches of the Conservative Party put paid to that, which led to May’s resignation, to Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister and to the whole thing unravelling.
What we saw through 2017 to 2019 was the most appalling constitutional vandalism, and we are now wrestling with the consequences of it. That is why we should reject the proposals and reject everything that the Conservative Party has visited on this country—the misery that it has visited on this country over the past five years.
I clarify that I was told that I was not speaking today—that the number of members who would speak had been cut. I have a speech and am prepared to make the speech.
That is fine—I just wanted to clarify that. Thank you, Presiding Officer.
It has been a long six years since Scotland voted by the margin of 62 per cent to 38 per cent to remain in the EU. Indeed, polls have shown that support for rejoining the EU is now higher than that.
Let us remind ourselves of what the protocol does. It creates a border in the Irish Sea for goods passing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU’s single market for goods. We have already heard about the benefits of that for Northern Ireland. That removed the need for border checks on the Irish land border.
On Monday, Boris Johnson secured a 74-vote majority for a bill to rip up the Northern Ireland element of his Brexit deal. Remember: he authorised its approval. More than 70 Tory MPs either abstained or were excused from voting. They included Theresa May, the former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith and Karen Bradley, and the former Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox. Theresa May led criticism of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, condemning it as “illegal” and warning that it would damage Britain’s standing in the world. She said:
“this Bill is not in my view legal in international law, it will not achieve its aims and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.”—[
Official Report, House of Commons
, 27 June 2022; Vol 717, c 64.]
Simon Hoare, Tory chairman of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said that the bill appeared to be
“a muscle flex for a future leadership bid”—[
Official Report, House of Commons
, 27 June 2022; Vol 717, c 56.]
The EU has warned Britain against unilaterally ripping up the protocol, and said that it would respond to the bill by restarting legal proceedings against the UK and threatening to use
“all measures at its disposal”,
including a potential trade war, if London acts to unravel the protocol.
With regard to the impact of Brexit, the Centre for European Reform modelled the economic performance of a UK that had remained in the EU, using data from countries including the US, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and Australia, whose performances were similar to that of the UK before Brexit. The CER then compared that with the real performance of the UK economy since the referendum six years ago. The CER concludes that, by the end of last year, the UK economy was 5.2 per cent, or £31 billion, smaller than it would have been had the UK stayed in the EU. Investment by business and Government was 13 per cent lower, and goods trade was also 13 per cent lower.
Last year, the Prime Minister promised that the UK was on the way to becoming a high-wage, high-productivity, low-tax economy. The evidence suggests that, so far, Brexit is delivering the opposite.
John Springford, who is deputy director at the CER, commented:
“If the economy is 5% smaller than it would otherwise have been then we are all 5% poorer. It also means that taxes have to rise to fund the same quality of public services that we had before.”
“That’s the backdrop to the chancellor’s decision to raise the overall tax [burden] to levels that we haven’t seen since the 1960s”
In a report that was produced in collaboration with the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Resolution Foundation said that quitting the EU would make Britain “poorer” during the 2020s. The Resolution Foundation specifically highlighted the impact on the fishing industry. It noted that
“the fishing industry, which is largely based in Scotland, is expected to decline by 30 per cent and some workers will face ‘painful adjustments’.”
Brexit has proved to be disastrous for the Scottish economy, and now the UK Government is risking a disastrous trade dispute with the European Union. Scotland is in the midst of a Tory cost of living crisis, and the UK is hurtling towards recession. The total trade in goods and services—the trade deficit—has widened by £14.9 billion to £25.2 billion in quarter 1 this year, reaching the largest deficit since records began in 1997.
That is the devastating impact of Brexit. The UK Government needs to withdraw the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and restart negotiations with the EU immediately. There is, of course, a solution on the horizon. Scotland will regain its independence on 19 October 2023, start negotiations to rejoin the EU and become part of the European family as an equal partner.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.
“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
I have visited Brussels twice recently in as many months, as was mentioned by my deputy convener. One visit was to go to the parliamentary partnership assembly and one was a fact-finding visit for the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, so I have seen at first hand how Europe and the wider world see the UK—how they see us. In short, the UK is seen as being not to be trusted. If it enacts the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill unilaterally, it will be viewed internationally as a rogue state.
The bill represents a huge threat not just to Northern Ireland but to Scotland’s economy, our competitiveness and our consumers—our constituents. Scotland’s exports, including whisky, salmon and cashmere, could be affected—industries that are already having to contend with post-Brexit chaos.
The most recent National Institute of Economic and Social Research quarterly outlook states that closer links with the EU through trade and potential labour mobility have benefited Northern Ireland post Brexit. Northern Ireland is shielded because it was given a compromise—a compromise that was sought for Scotland but was denied, as we are tethered, against our will, to Brexit.
The question for my Conservative colleagues is this: Cui bono? Who benefits from those decisions—the decision to leave the EU, the subsequent decision not to progress implementation of the protocol, and now the decision to unilaterally introduce the bill? It is a bill that rips up a protocol that was agreed and which Boris Johnson and his Tory acolytes hailed as a triumph at the time. The protocol was negotiated in good faith between the Westminster Government and the European Commission, and by reneging on the first serious international treaty post Brexit, the Tories will do irreparable damage to the UK’s international standing.
The European Commission has announced new infringement proceedings against the UK Government over the alleged failure to implement and to staff border control posts at the Northern Ireland ports, and to provide real-time data on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I say to Mr Rennie that those were infringement proceedings that had been suspended but have been re-enacted because of the bad faith of the UK Government.
Having been in the room during the PPA, I heard the representations from the EU and UK delegations. The EU delegation was incredulous that, having solved the medicines issue and negotiated using what exists within the protocol to solve the difficulties, the UK seems not even to have responded—as Ms Hyslop said in her intervention—to the new proposals from the EU to make things work and to get round that table. It is the UK that is the problem in relation to the negotiation being taken any further. Mr Šefcovic’s comments have laid things bare: he has told us how that step by the UK would be illegal and could provoke a trade war.
The UK Government, in its bad faith, is willing to put the Horizon scheme at further risk. It is willing to put the Good Friday agreement at further risk. It is putting the commerce of our country at risk while our voice is silenced. In the PPA, the Senedd, Stormont and Holyrood do not have voices in the room; everybody sits there talking about Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland does not have a voice in the room. That is untenable and it is a democratic deficit that will only get worse. Thank goodness we have a path out of this boorach.
I have been a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly for six years. That institution predated the Good Friday agreement by a couple of years, but it fulfils the role of interparliamentary dialogue that is required under strand 3 of the agreement, so it is one of the institutions of the peace process.
Through that institution, I have been privileged to get to know some of the people who secured the peace agreement in the first place. They put themselves at immense risk to secure that better future for their families and their society. However, Brexit has defined all the six years that I have sat on the BIPA, to the immense frustration of most members when there are so many other issues about the relationships on these islands that we could have discussed. It has been like groundhog day every meeting trying over and over again to square the circle of an open land border between two markets and an open sea border between different constituent parts of the UK.
There has been little to no understanding from the UK Government of the fact that the peace process is a process and still on-going—it was not an event in 1998. The Good Friday agreement is an international treaty, not an internal political agreement in the UK between different parties and combatants in the conflict. The protocol is the least-worst solution, not the problem. Brexit itself was always the problem. However, the protocol is the solution that the Brexiteers chose and signed up to. It was part of their oven-ready deal.
The protocol is working economically for Northern Ireland, as has been pointed out. On a range of measures, Northern Ireland is outperforming the rest of the UK. The situation is causing political instability. However, that political instability is being caused by the Democratic Unionist Party leading political loyalism down a dead end. By the way, the DUP barely engages with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
Earlier this year, I spoke to Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, about the issue. To be fair to Mr Donaldson, he is the one DUP member I have seen engage properly with the institutions of the peace process but, when I asked him about the DUP’s proposed alternatives to the protocol, all I got back was vague talk of technological solutions. We have been there before. That was most of the discussion with Brexiteers for the past six years.
If the situation was purely about resolving economic issues, technological solutions would be available. The border between Norway and Sweden is an excellent example of a high-technology solution to a customs border. However, we know that that is not a solution in the north of Ireland, because it would require immense amounts of physical infrastructure, which is clearly not compatible with the peace agreement.
The DUP has whipped up political loyalism and is now being punished by it. As a result, a number of loyalists—fairly understandably—feel that they have been sold out as part of the process.
Northern Ireland is changing. The institutions are premised on a unionist-nationalist divide but will need to be reconfigured. Political unionism has lost its majority and is highly unlikely to get it back, but political nationalism is not much closer to securing a majority of its own. A different configuration is required for Stormont, but there is no space for that discussion as long as Brexit makes the crisis permanent. If polling is correct, Irish unity is perhaps closer than ever. That is not an issue for us to weigh in on, but I highly doubt that it is a consequence intended by the people who led us to this point from Downing Street.
The situation in Northern Ireland is being made worse by Tory brinkmanship. At best, that is about the Tories strengthening their negotiating hand with the EU, although that would be a shameful way of going about it, because it plays into the hands of the people who do not want peace and never wanted peace in the north of Ireland. More likely, it is just about holding on to the keys to number 10. Boris Johnson is feeding the Brexiteer wing of his party and wider support base a constant diet of confrontation with Brussels.
If it is about negotiating strength, though, another profound mistake is being made. The EU faces immense challenges to the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. It cannot credibly deal with those, which it fully intends to do, without taking action against the partner that is also breaching international law and agreements. Brexiteers think that the Northern Ireland protocol sits in isolation, but it does not. The same mistakes have been made over and over since 2016—mistakes rooted in British exceptionalism.
The risk of a trade war is real. That would result in huge suffering on top of the cost of living crisis. The UK would not win that trade war. We are on the precipice of recession anyway and that would tip us over. The solution to the matter was here from the start: the UK staying in the single market and the customs union.
Boris Johnson was elected on a promise to get Brexit done, but he has guaranteed that it will never be over. The UK Government intends to address the protocol on the basis of the necessity principle, but that principle is a justification for breaching international law. It is an admission that that is exactly what the UK Government intends to do. The EU still wants to negotiate, but that requires the UK to turn up and have proposals.
The EU does not want a trade war and we cannot afford one. Today, the Parliament will state overwhelmingly that it is not happening in our name. There is still time for the UK Government to withdraw the bill but, if it does not, the Conservatives must own the consequences of their actions.
Why is this issue important? What is at risk? Why does it affect Scotland? How must it be resolved? Those are the key questions.
As others have already warned, the risks of an EU trade war and its implications are real. In the spirit of co-operation, the EU has, willingly, not implemented a number of things that are part of the withdrawal agreement. However, if, because of the UK’s behaviour, it now chooses to implement the letter of the agreement, that will have wider consequences. For example, I have heard that the EU’s Copernicus programme may now cease to involve UK researchers and academics in work on satellite monitoring of climate change impacts on seas, polar ice and deforestation. The UK is knowingly prepared to risk that participation as well as risk a trade war.
Of course, Northern Ireland is currently the best-performing part of the UK, precisely because it continues to have easier access to the single market.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, has stated clearly the situation with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, saying that 74 per cent of people in Northern Ireland want an EU-UK agreement on protocol implementation, not unilateral legislation in breach of international law; that it will damage the Good Friday agreement, not protect it; that it is a breach of international law and will damage the UK’s reputation; that it is against business and majority opinion in Northern Ireland; and that it is unnecessary UK unilateral action when partnership and compromise are on offer from the EU. His words were blunt but accurate.
In her searing speech in the House of Commons on Monday, Teresa May said:
“In thinking about the Bill, I started by asking myself three questions. First, do I consider it to be legal under international law? Secondly, will it achieve its aims? Thirdly, does it at least maintain the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world? My answer to all three questions is no. That is even before we look at the extraordinarily sweeping powers that the Bill would give to Ministers.”—[
House of Commons
, 27 June 2022; Vol 717, c 63.]
“the International Law Commission says that where a state has itself contributed to the situation of necessity, that doctrine cannot be prayed in aid.”—[
House of Commons
, 27 June 2022; Vol 717, c 40]
However, the UK Government is arguing the defence of necessity for something that it itself deliberately instigated.
International standing matters; the rule of law matters; and the rule of international law matters on a global scale. Is the UK a trusted partner that will honour its agreements? In an article that was published only last week, former Labour Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones wrote:
“Britain is beginning to look more and more like a kind of rogue state. The Prime Minister can break the law with impunity without consequence. Ministers, when challenged, want to remove the source of that challenge. The state wants to pick and choose what parts of international agreements it wants to abide by and those it wants to ditch.
All this gives the impression to the world of the UK slowly falling apart and cannot be relied on to keep its word.”
To go back to my questions, why is this important? Because international agreements, the rule of law and the UK’s reputation are important. What is at risk? The on-going peace in Northern Ireland and the restoration of power-sharing democratic government there. Why does it affect Scotland? Because Scotland is proportionally more reliant on EU exports, and our food and drink, agriculture and other industries will be damaged if the EU implements the customs rules that the UK has signed up to but the EU has not yet fully implemented. How must the situation be resolved? Through diplomacy—serious diplomacy, not arrogant posturing and politicking—and discussion and negotiation between the EU and the UK, and I welcome the sentiment of what Donald Cameron said in that regard.
Brexit is not done. Brexit is still with us. It is happening. It is causing economic loss, curbing exports to the biggest market in the world and causing staffing shortages in key industries, which is exacerbating inflation. Worst of all, it is undermining and rejecting the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland who voted for parties that want the protocol to continue, and it is damaging to the upholding of democracy, the rule of law and the UK’s international reputation.
I urge members to support the motion.
As many members have said, it is extremely disappointing that we are debating a bill that would break international law, but some good points have been made that need to be re-emphasised. One of them concerned incompetence. Several speakers across the chamber have highlighted that the challenges for the operation of the protocol are challenges of the Conservative Government’s own making. It negotiated and voted for the protocol and is now taking a wrecking ball to its own deal and also, critically, to our relationship with our European neighbours.
The irony is that there is a way out of this mess and it is through negotiation. Times change and experience needs to be learned from. In the face of unworkability, it is unrealistic to stick dogmatically to previous decisions. However, change via a wrecking ball is also unrealistic.
I thought that the point that Clare Adamson made about the deal on medicines was important. There is a willingness to work together. There are issues that Northern Ireland businesses—in particular, dairy farmers—would like to see addressed. Sorting out problems would require the European Union and the UK Government to work together to make compromises, but that is how negotiations work, and it is by sitting around a table and having those realistic discussions that we get progress.
The rule of law has also been mentioned several times, with regard to the legality—or rather, illegality—of this bill. It is clear that the bill would break international law. One of the things that worry members across the chamber today is what happens next on the Good Friday agreement, which was built on the parity of esteem of both communities. The UK Government needs to outline now what it is going to do to respect the Good Friday agreement, because that is what the protocol agreement was meant to do. It is on the Government, so it needs to talk about it.
Several members have rightly raised the risk of trade war, which is really concerning our businesses at the moment. The adversarial manner in which the Tory Government is acting could lead to retaliatory measures from the EU, which would affect all of us and would increase the uncertainty that businesses are already dealing with. Many businesses are currently struggling, so people up and down the country will have to face the consequences, with miserly help at the moment from the UK Tory Government.
It has been reported that the Treasury has drawn up an economic impact assessment for this disastrous course of action. The UK Government needs to publish that analysis now and reflect on it, because it is potentially writing us out of organisations and opportunities to work together, for example in research and development and the horizon programme.
So much is at risk from the bill, and that is why Scottish Labour cannot support it. Over the coming months, it is to be expected that we will have debates about independence being the only solution for Scotland. In reality, under the SNP-Green independence plans, the issues that face communities and businesses in Northern Ireland would simply move to Gretna and Berwick. Willie Rennie’s points about the risks of independence were well made. There is a gap between ambitions and a reality check, and Brexit shows the tragedy of advocating something but not owning up to the divisions that it potentially creates. It is a warning for all of us.
Paul Sweeney’s reflections on trying to find workable solutions when he served in the UK Parliament are important to us. There is a gap between promises and the reality of separation. We need to think about interdependence, constructive dialogue and negotiations, in order to put the interests of all our constituents first. That should be the priority for all members.
A future Labour Government would scrap this bill and get around the negotiating table with our European neighbours. We are never going to agree on everything, but we have to work together, respect each other, rebuild the trust and good will that has been demolished by the Conservatives, and provide certainty for communities in Northern Ireland and across the UK. We need to make the effort to work together and be honest about the challenges that we face. That is not happening at the moment, so we urgently need change.
We all want to see a resolution to the situation in Northern Ireland. It is in the interests of all parties, all four nations of the UK and the EU that we come together to address the issues with the Northern Ireland protocol that have become apparent.
In its current state, the protocol is stifling trade, has caused major issues around the supply of essential medicines and is an active problem in resolving the delicate matter of power sharing at Stormont. That threatens to destabilise the Good Friday agreement, which is one of the very things that the protocol was created to protect.
No, I will not.
That is not to say that aspects of the protocol do not work and that it was not a necessary starting position in order to break the previous deadlock. However, like any deal, it requires fine tuning in order to best protect the interests of all involved.
The bill that has been introduced addresses many of those issues. Practical measures such as a green lane-red lane system, which would create a two-tier regulatory system, are proposals that should, and will, be considered by the EU.
As Donald Cameron alluded, retailers who have no stores in the Republic of Ireland are still required to meet EU standards just to ship their goods to Belfast for sale exclusively in Northern Ireland. That is clearly unworkable in the long term.
The same can be said for the transport of medicines. My region of South Scotland is home to the major ferry port at Cairnryan, which is Scotland’s largest export point for goods to Northern Ireland. If the protocol is not amended, it will continue to affect exporters in the constituencies of every MSP in the chamber. Therefore, it is in all our interests to support a re-evaluation of the deal’s implementation.
I will not.
There are also political considerations. Both parties to the agreement pledged to uphold the Good Friday agreement. With the breakdown of power sharing at Stormont and the threat of a hard border in the island of Ireland, it is fair to say that the Good Friday agreement is under strain.
The UK Government maintains that the amendments that it proposes to the protocol will support all three strands of the Belfast agreement, and it is clear that they are in need of support. Strand 1, relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly, remains unresolved. Strand 2, which fosters co-operation between the north and south, is under pressure. It is clear that the third strand, which deals with east-west relations, is also strained. For the proposed changes to be implemented, the agreement of both the UK and the EU is required.
Northern Ireland urgently needs a Government. The people of Northern Ireland require stability and certainty, and the UK and the EU have a duty to uphold their prior obligations in the form of the Belfast agreement. Those should be our common goals going forward. I hope that an acceptable compromise is reached that addresses the many concerns that have arisen on both sides regarding the protocol .
Scotland did not vote for Brexit. That requires consideration as we reflect on the impact that it is having on Scotland, including as the protocol chaos rumbles on.
Today, we have heard much about the parlous state of UK-EU relations and much about the UK Government’s approach to the bill. We have also heard a great deal about the negative impact that its approach could have on the Scottish economy—both on our trading routes and on our interests in the trade and co-operation agreement, as was referred to in the excellent speeches by Jim Fairlie and Fiona Hyslop.
To take just one example of how the bill carries with it wider implications, Scotland’s leading researchers, who have already suffered the uncertainty of Brexit in previous years, face being frozen out of horizon Europe—collateral damage of the UK Government’s ideologically driven agenda. Horizon Europe is globally unparalleled and offers a €95.5 billion research and innovation programme from which Scotland has benefited greatly in the past. What is the UK Government’s response? A potential smaller domestic replacement, with details to follow.
We face the same paralysis across the trade and co-operation agreement, with all questions and queries about progress tracing back to the impasse on the protocol. Lest we forgot, this is the protocol that was negotiated by Boris Johnson less than three years ago, which he hailed as a “fantastic moment”.
Now, of course, UK Government ministers claim that there are issues with the protocol, which were “unforeseen” and “unintended”. However, in the next breath, to justify the bill, we were told this week by the foreign secretary that the problems are
“baked into the text” of the protocol itself. Both excuses cannot be true. If the problems are, indeed, baked in, we would be forgiven for asking whether the Prime Minister even read his own “oven-ready” Brexit deal. Such are the contortions and linguistic gymnastics that are required for the UK Government to try to justify this embarrassing ideological nonsense that its ministers are directly contradicting themselves.
Those are, of course, extremely serious issues that will be causing much consternation to many sectors in Scotland. However, as Paul Sweeney and others have said, we must also keep in mind the wider context: the need to respect the Northern Ireland peace process and the rule of law. Willie Rennie was right to refer to the rule of law—that is possibly the one part of his speech that I could agree with.
Adherence to the rule of law underpins our democracy and society. It is a fundamental value that we hold dear in Scotland. Knowingly breaking it by passing the bill could have far-reaching economic, legal and political consequences and should not be taken lightly, which is a point that Paul McLennan covered.
As Ross Greer has said, UK ministers’ justification for trashing the protocol is that there is a necessity to do so. However, as Fiona Hyslop mentioned, on Monday night, Theresa May said:
“the very existence of article 16”— which allows negotiations on aspects of the protocol—
“negates the legal justification for the Bill.”—[
, 27 June 2022; Vol 717, c 63.]
Before closing the debate, I once again stress the frustration and anger that has been felt in European capitals as a result of the bill and the unfathomable and unforgivable damage that it is doing to bilateral relations, as Sarah Boyack and Clare Adamson stressed. We have seen the UK Government’s actions condemned in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Dublin and Washington DC by presidents and prime ministers who are appalled that a western democracy would cast aside an international agreement that it signed in good faith less than three years ago. This is not just about the Northern Ireland protocol, important though that is. It is about how our nation, as part of the UK, is perceived on the international stage. It is also further evidence of the importance of Scotland being able to take charge of all our affairs in the future as an independent nation.
Regardless of how the bill ultimately fares at Westminster—I call on all responsible members of the House of Parliament and the House of Lords to speak up in defence of international law—the damage done by the UK Government’s actions will not be easily reversed. It also prompts the question: “For what?” What end is the UK Government pursuing with this bill that justifies these extraordinary means? As the cabinet secretary has outlined, it cannot truly be the economy, as the Northern Ireland economy is enjoying better growth because it has continued access to the single market.
We are told that the UK Government is seeking to unlock the political impasse in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to protect the Good Friday agreement and to restore power sharing at Stormont. If that truly is its aim, the UK Government is falling at the first hurdle. The DUP is still refusing to share power with Sinn Féin, and more than half of those who were, last month, elected to the legislative assembly—the very body that the UK Government claims it is protecting—made their position very clear in a recent letter to the Prime Minister. That letter states:
“we strongly reject your continued claim to be protecting the Good Friday Agreement as your Government works to destabilise our region ... Your claims to be acting to protect our institutions is as much a fabrication as the Brexit campaign claims you made in 2016.”
The Brexit referendum was supposed to answer the decades-long Tory Party psychodrama on the relationship with Europe. Instead, six years since that referendum, Scotland is still being held back by Tory incompetence and ideology that the majority in Scotland want nothing to do with. Breaking the protocol and international law by passing the bill is not the answer. If the Scottish Conservatives are true to their word on negotiation, there is a route: article 16. The UK Government needs to renegotiate the terms of the protocol. In the meantime, it should consider removing the bill, ensure that it does not break international law and get back round the table to negotiate with the EU so that we all enjoy a more fruitful future and a better relationship with the EU.