M&S warned today that it is already slashing Christmas ranges for Northern Ireland due to ‘pettifogging’ enforcement of Brexit rules – as the UK unveils plans to override the protocol unless Brussels sees sense.
The head of the famous chain gave an extraordinary account of the obstacles facing exporter as Lord Frost prepares to lay out proposals for ending the bitter standoff over the divorce terms.
The peer is expected to call for most checks to be eliminated on goods moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland – insisting the friction within the UK is putting the peace process at risk.
M&S chairman Archie Norman said its festive products for Northern Ireland were already being ‘delisted’ and shoppers could face higher prices. He said he feared that when grace periods come to an end there will be similar issues to those seen exports goods to Ireland, where whole shipments have been lost due to documents being filled out in the wrong colour pen.
Boris Johnson urged Dublin counterpart Micheal Martin to show ‘pragmatism’ in a phone call last night.
But Ireland’s European affairs minister Thomas Byrne insisted this morning that any solution must be within the confines of the existing protocol, saying Brexit was the source of the problems not enforcement.
Lord Frost (right) has been trying to thrash out the issues with EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic (left)
M&S chairman Archie Norman said its festive products for Northern Ireland were already being ‘delisted’, warning there could be ‘gaps on the shelves’. Stores in Belfast have experienced disruption to supplies this year (pictured)
Archie Norman said he feared that when grace periods come to an end there will be similar issues to those seen exports goods to Ireland, where whole shipments have been lost due to documents being filled out in the wrong colour pen
Archie Norman told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there will be ‘gaps on the shelves’ unless things change.
‘This Christmas, I can tell you already, we’re having to make decisions to delist product for Northern Ireland because it’s simply not worth the risk of trying to get it through,’ the former Tory MP said.
‘We’ve already made that decision. We’re waiting to see how serious it’s going to be but if it’s anything like southern Ireland (the Republic of Ireland), and at the moment it’s set to be, then it’s going to be very, very serious for customers.’
He called for a ‘common sense approach to enforcement focused on the ends, which is protecting consumers, not the bureaucratic means’.
Mr Norman said M&S had been forced to give up exporting half its sandwich range to Ireland.
‘Sandwiches typically require three veterinary certificates to get through,’ he said.
He said the system was paper-based and subject to massive delays that often meant whole shipments were lost.
‘If one page is blue instead of black typeface, the entire wagon is turned away,’ he added.
If the regime is the same for Northern Ireland from the end of September it will be ‘incendiary’ for the public there, he said.
Lord Frost has told Parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee that the only way to make the Protocol work is to ‘hugely reduce or eliminate the barriers’ that have effectively created a border down the Irish Sea since it came into force in January.
There are reports he will push for an ‘honesty box’ approach to allow companies in Great Britain that declare their goods are only destined for sale and use in Northern Ireland to skip border checks.
The US has been ramping up the pressure for a resolution, with former Secretary of State John Kerry – now Joe Biden’s climate envoy – pointing out the President is ‘deeply committed’ to keeping the peace on the island of Ireland.
‘There’s a constant concern,’ he said.
‘My principal concern is now climate and it’s not my portfolio but, suffice to say, President Biden is deeply immersed in the issue. He’s been dealing with it for years on the foreign relations committee.
‘Secretary of State Tony Blinken is as knowledgeable and has worked with the president on this for years and they’re both deeply committed in making certain that the agreement holds and there is peace ultimately.’
The US State Department also insisted the UK must stay ‘within the existing mechanisms’. ‘We encourage them to negotiate within the existing mechanisms when differences do arise,’ a spokesman said.
Shadow Brexit minister Baroness Chapman accused Lord Frost of engaging in more ‘brinkmanship’. ‘The PM negotiated this deal just months ago and yet today communities and businesses in Northern Ireland are being subjected to another round of brinkmanship,’ she said.
‘The Government and the EU must urgently find a sustainable way forward to reassure everyone affected by this political stalemate.’
The Protocol was negotiated as part of Britain’s divorce from Brussels to avoid a hard border with Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.
But the introduction of checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea has angered Unionists, who have protested against it in recent months, arguing the Brexit terms have weakened Northern Ireland’s links with the rest of the UK.
The UK Government has also said the checks and added red tape have caused trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to decline.
Separately, US State department spokesman Ned Price told reporters it would be ‘watching’ events in the UK.
He added: ‘As we’ve consistently said over time, we do support a close relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and we encourage them to negotiate within the existing mechanisms when differences do arise.
‘We’ve consistently said that we welcome the provisions in both the trade and cooperation agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and the European Union, which, importantly, help to protect the gains of the Belfast and Good Friday Agreement.’
During a conversation with the Irish Taoiseach, the Prime Minister reminded his counterpart that the Protocol needed to protect the peace in Northern Ireland in ‘all its dimensions’ – a reference to the need for it to satisfy both Nationalists and Unionists.
Following the phone call on Tuesday, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: ‘The Prime Minister emphasised that the way the Protocol is currently operating is causing significant disruption for the people in Northern Ireland.
‘He made clear the UK Government’s commitment to protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions.
‘He said the EU must show pragmatism and solutions needed to be found to address the serious challenges that have arisen with the Protocol.
Mr Sefvovic (left) and Mr Frost (right) have been holding a series of meetings as they try to find a way through the crisis
‘The Prime Minister said that the UK Government would outline its approach on the Northern Ireland Protocol to Parliament tomorrow.’
The Taoiseach told Mr Johnson that the proposals set to be announced in Westminster would be ‘carefully considered’, according to the Irish Government.
Mr Martin also stressed that there was already a EU-UK framework for dealing with issues related to the Protocol.
The men had been due to meet in person in the UK, until Mr Johnson was told to self-isolate after coming into close contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for coronavirus at the weekend.
Lord Frost – who negotiated the UK’s split from the EU – told MPs on Monday that the UK Government was ‘keeping all options on the table’ to resolve issues with the Protocol, including triggering Article 16, which would allow the unilateral overruling of the agreement.
The FT said Lord Frost, whose statement will be read to the Commons by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, is preparing to tell the EU that the UK is within its rights to activate Article 16 due to the disruption the Protocol is causing.