Developments at the border form an ongoing feature of contemporary news reports. Broadly, cross-Channel traffic flows appear to be close to prior levels for this time last year, with a decrease of 13% vs week four of last January probably attributable to the COVID-related downturn in activity. It has been argued that more trucks than usual are returning empty due to the difficulties involved in exporting, but this is difficult to prove with certainty. As many as 50% of trucks return empty anyway in normal times.
With manufacturing, too, suggestions that a ‘stalling’ sector has contributed to the lack of border issues misrepresents the data. According to IHS Markit’s weighted average of manufacturing information, a larger majority of businesses than expected reported improvements compared to December. Despite the ifs and buts which commentators try and attach to it, an improvement remains an improvement however you look at it.
Specific difficulties, however, have continued to pile up with the Northern Irish Protocol. The EU’s unilateral invocation of Article 16 last Friday made apparent how little interest or respect the EU has for the province. Northern Ireland is closely integrated with the UK economy, particularly in areas such as agriculture and food, and the Canada-style arrangement is simply unsuited to reflecting this relationship. More sophisticated arrangements are necessary, such as trusted trader schemes and easements of EU regulations around organic and animal products.
Inevitably, Brussels and Dublin will resist negotiating on the movement of UK products to NI. They effecitly will seek to (inefficiently) divert NI trade to Republic, at the cost of jobs and businesses in Ulster. If necessary, the government must be take these issues to international arbitration, or to act unilaterally. It might be wise, however, to wait until the unreasonable conduct of the EU, and the genuine threat of civil disturbance, legitimise such decisive action with the UK public and the broader international audience. As the Commission’s recent recklessness has shown, such an opportunity may not be long in coming.