Richard North, 19/03/2021  

Sometimes, when stupid people make stupid comments it is best to ignore them. But when that stupid person is the foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, that stance becomes a little difficult.

Nevertheless, as a rule, I do try to ignore Dominic Raab, the man who – just over two years ago – admitted that he "hadn't quite understood the full extent" to which the UK was reliant on trade between Dover and Calais.

Then, however, he was Brexit secretary – another in the line of disasters HMG has fielded – but, his elevation to foreign secretary has not improved his general level of understanding of EU-related trade flows.

This time, the idiot abroad was caught telling a US audience that EU was trying to erect a border down the Irish Sea, thereby threatening the Northern Ireland Protocol and damaging the Good Friday Agreement.

Given that level of stupidity, I suppose it would be too much to expect the EU not to respond and, right on cue, we've seen Maroš Šefcovic enter the fray, albeit with more diplomacy than Raab deserves.

Instead of raising the question of how a minister of the crown can be so thick (or dishonest), Šefcovic has limited himself to suggesting that Raab is displaying a "total misunderstanding" of the Northern Ireland Protocol. He adds that Raab’s comments raise major questions, and warns that Britain is tarnishing its global reputation by ignoring the terms of its agreements with Brussels.

Sadly, Šefcovic is probably right and it is a little bit tiresome constantly having to distance oneself from government ministers (and the prime minister), on the basic grounds that they are uttering complete gibberish.

There is little that can be done, though, to address Šefcovic's point that the damage done to the UK's image by its conduct has been evident during his discussions last week with a bipartisan group of US Congress members known as the Friends of Ireland.

Referring to the claims made by Raab, he cites them as a further reason for dwindling faith internationally in the British government. "This is what I feel when I talk to my international partners; that was what I felt when I talked to the Friends of Ireland on the [Capitol] Hill in the US", he says.

Šefcovic says that Johnson's government had known what it was signing up to and that he had been "surprised" by the repeated attempts to avoid the consequences of border checks on goods, including SPS controls.

"If you look through the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, that's very clear what we agreed to: that we would have the border control posts built and that is supposed to be built by the end of the last year", he adds. "These checks and controls will be performed by the UK authorities, meaning the EU law will be fully applicable. That is the gist of the deal".

This does, of course, pre-suppose that Raab has actually looked at the Protocol, or was able to understand what it actually said. Any such assumptions might be unwise. But one cannot also rule out a deliberate attempt to lay down a smokescreen, in an attempt to confuse the Americans – not too difficult at the best of times.

What gives this exchange a special relevance, though, is the publication of Irish trade statistics for January, with the Irish Times reporting that imports from Britain have fallen by two-thirds, from €1.4 billion to €497 million – compared to the same month last year.

In terms of detail, the falloff was driven by declines in imports of food and live animals (down 75 percent to €62 million) and mineral fuels (down 71 percent to €57 million). There were also declines in chemicals and related products from Britain, and in machinery and transport equipment.

Like the ONS in respect of the UK figures, the Irish Central Statistics Office attributes the decline to a combination of factors, of which the "challenges" of complying with customs requirements is but one. Other factors included the stockpiling of goods in the final quarter of 2020 in preparation for Brexit, the substitution with goods from other countries, and a reduction in trade volumes due to the impact of Covid-19.

In a separate report from Sky News which, for once, has something useful to report, we are told that the volume of goods being ferried across the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland has collapsed.

Freight movement between Holyhead and Dublin has halved, and volume has collapsed between Fishguard in Wales and Rosslare in Ireland. More goods are now moving between Britain and Belfast because freight can now be sent from Britain to Ireland through Northern Ireland without complex border procedures.

Freight volumes between Liverpool and Belfast and Cairnryan and Belfast have nearly risen back to their pre-pandemic levels since the start of the year. "Freight will always find the path of least resistance. It's a bit like water. It'll always find the easiest way through," says Stephen Carr, Commercial Director at Peel Ports, which operates ports at Liverpool and Heysham.

There has also been a 208 percent increase in the volume of freight transported by ferries from France directly to Ireland in February compared to the same month last year, according to ferry operator Stena Line. The change to more distant ports, though, have increased transportation costs, which are being passed on to customers.

Yet all is not well for the future. The industry fears the viability of the Belfast route is likely to be short lived as freight capacity is nearing its limit. John Martin, policy manager in Northern Ireland for the Road Haulage Association says. "Once the Covid restrictions are lifted and the retail and hospitality sectors open up in Northern Ireland, there will be an increase in demand for products coming from GB into Northern Ireland". Once this happens, he says, "There will be insufficient capacity on the ferry servicing Northern Ireland".

As to why there has been such a drastic change in trade flows, this in part is attributed to the (now extended) grace period for checks on goods entering via Northern Ireland. Quite simply, the EU is implementing the Withdrawal Agreement but the UK is not.

Obviously, there must be a limit to how much of this the EU will tolerate, as its fears of Northern Ireland being used as a back door into the Single Market are beginning to be realised. Doubtless, this is driving the Commission's actions in seeking to force the UK to implement the Northern Irish Protocol.

Šefcovic is characteristically clear on this point. He says, "It's very difficult to operate in the environment where the government which signed and ratified this international law is actively advising the business community not to follow the rules and not respect the law. And, of course, we hope that this will be corrected".

Needless to say, the UK government remains in the land of the fayries. It says that its extension of the grace periods is "a pragmatic and lawful effort to allow traders further time to adapt to the changes brought by Brexit". Despite the Commission's action, a Downing Street spokesman insists that "low-key operational measures like these are well precedented and common in the early days of major international treaties".

Adding fuel to the fire, a UK source said: "The EU needs to take a more pragmatic approach and keep in mind that the Protocol depends on cross-community consent and confidence if it is to work. It needs to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions".

Soon enough – if not already – it must dawn on the Commission that, intellectually, there's no-one at home in the British government. Raab is not an outlier. He is typical of the Johnson administration and entirely representative of his master. And the problem with stupid people is that they are incapable of realising how stupid they are.

This is a lesson the Commission is beginning to learn.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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