The UK’s agreement with Brussels on post-Brexit Irish border arrangements will prevent some export declarations, will avoid the risk of tariffs for goods brought into Northern Ireland and won’t see the establishment of an EU “mini-embassy”, MPs have been told.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove set out the details of his recently-struck agreement on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which forms part of the UK’s divorce deal with the EU.
It follows Mr Gove’s trip to Brussels this week, which saw the EU-UK Joint Committee – of which he is co-chair – settle outstanding issues from the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period this month.
In return, the UK has promised to ditch certain parts of its Internal Market Bill, which sought to give ministers the power to override sections of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The EU had launched legal action against the UK as part of a bitter row over the legislation.
The Joint Committee’s agreement is separate from continuing negotiations over a post-Brexit trade deal, which is currently deadlocked ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s last-ditch trip to Brussels on Wednesday evening.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed between the EU and UK last year as a means of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and will see Northern Ireland abide by some rules of the bloc’s single market.
In his statement to MPs, Mr Gove said the EU and UK had “worked intensively” to ensure the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol will be “fully operational” on 1 January.
He told MPs that the Joint Committee’s agreement would protect “unfettered access” for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the UK market.
This includes “removing any prospect of export declarations for Northern Ireland goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain” apart from the “very limited and specific exception of trade in endangered species and conflict diamonds”, Mr Gove said.
However, there will be a need to declare imports from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
Mr Gove also said the UK had averted EU plans for all goods brought into Northern Ireland to be considered “at risk” and be subject to tariffs.
“Instead, I am pleased to say that under the agreement that we’ve reached, Northern Ireland businesses selling to consumers or using goods in Northern Ireland will be free of all tariffs,” Mr Gove said.
“Whether that is Nissan’s 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.”
Mr Gove told MPs there would be a “grace period” for supermarkets in Northern Ireland to update their procedures in order to abide by the terms of the protocol, while the deal “protects the flow of medicines and vet medicines into Northern Ireland”.
In addition, firms in Great Britain will stay outside of EU state aid rules where there is no “genuine and direct” link to Northern Ireland and no “real forseeable” impact on Northern Ireland-EU trade.
The House of Commons was told that EU officials will be allowed to be present at Northern Ireland ports, as UK authorities carry out their own procedures.
But Mr Gove stressed “there will be no Belfast ‘mini-embassy’ or mission, as the EU originally sought”.
“And the EU officials will not have any powers to carry out checks themselves,” he added.
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves told Mr Gove that the government’s threat to breach international law through the Internal Market Bill had been “a dangerous distraction”.
And, asking a series of questions about border infrastructure preparations, business preparedness and the systems needed to make trade flow, she added: “This really does give new meaning to the night before Christmas.”
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson said that the “real test” of the agreement would be in how the measures “work on the ground”.
“This party opposed the protocol and warned about all of the problems which the minister is now having to address,” he said.
“And whilst we welcome the changes which have been made today, nevertheless the real test will be in how these measures work on the ground rather than the spin we’re given in this House.”