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Ambassador to Ireland, Dublin
Part of Brexit
2nd June 2020 Dublin, Ireland
A week in the life of Robin Barnett
Many people have asked me how an Embassy can operate virtually. After all, diplomacy is something of a contact sport. The answer lies in a combination of good IT, a great team, lots of imagination and creativity, a network of contacts, a lot of hard work and, crucially, by recharging your mobile phone at every opportunity! Let me give you a practical example.
The publication of the UK’s approach to the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol last Wednesday made for a busy day for me and colleagues in Dublin as well as London, Belfast, Brussels and elsewhere. But the preparation had begun much earlier. Like most organisations, the British Civil Service has relied heavily on e-mail exchanges and face to face meetings when doing business. But preparing for and gathering reactions to the launch of our paper required a variety of secure technical solutions.
I am impressed by how quickly we have all learnt how to use them. Our Command paper sets out how we are honouring our commitments under the Protocol, which as an Irish audience knows well was designed to avoid the prospect of a hard border on this island. As Michael Gove told the House of Commons, “The Protocol exists to ensure that the progress that the people of Northern Ireland have made in the 22 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is secured into the future.”
It’s clear that the Protocol must be implemented in a way that reflects the unique situation in Northern Ireland. That means protecting the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, respecting the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people, respecting the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the UK, and protecting the EU’s single market in a way that impacts as lightly as possible on the everyday life of Northern Ireland. A lot of work and thought has gone into trying to get that important balance right.
We will listen carefully to the range of responses to our proposals. We are already discussing them actively with Irish stakeholders using every technique from phone calls to Zoom meetings, and are doing the same with EU partners, where both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government will also have a seat at the table.
It was also an eventful week for the wider UK-EU future relationship negotiations. Just before we launched the our Paper on Northern Ireland, we also concluded, the third round of negotiations. At the same time, from 5th to 15th May, the UK and U.S. conducted a positive first round of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement. All of this by video conference.
There is clear determination on both sides of the virtual table to make the EU/UK talks work even in the current difficult circumstances. From a UK perspective, it is clear that a standard comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, together with other agreements on key areas like law enforcement, could be agreed, in line with the Political Declaration, in the time available.
However, as David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, said after the third round, and as Michel Barnier echoed, there has been little progress last week on the most significant outstanding areas we need to resolve: open and fair competition (level playing field), governance arrangements and fish.
The UK negotiating team are looking for a change in the EU approach as the next round begins on 2 June. We need to move things forward. This is why David Frost wrote an open letter to Michel Barnier last week, which set out clearly the UK position. We also shared all of our draft legal texts by email and online, so that the EU’s Member States and others can look at the substance of what we are proposing.
Among the UK’s main concerns is that the EU is looking to bind the UK to EU law and standards: the so-called ‘level-playing field’. We want an approach based on precedent, and the EU has not asked for anything like this on the LPF in any of its other FTAs (even in its negotiations with the US, which has roughly the same size of trade with the EU as the UK).
We all agree that open and fair competition is important, and we, of course, also want to avoid trade distortions in our relationship with the EU: the Political Declaration reflects this. But it’s the way the EU wishes to achieve this that the UK disagrees with.
Having left the EU, the UK does not want, nor would the British public accept, continuing to be bound by EU rules. Instead, we are asking for the same kind of arrangements the EU has agreed in FTAs with other friendly countries, like Canada and Japan. The UK has among the highest regulatory standards in Europe and we have no intention of lowering them.
Both the UK and the EU remain committed to agreeing a zero tariff and zero quota FTA by the end of 2020. Reducing the costs and processes associated with trade is in the interests of people and businesses in both the UK and Ireland. When the fourth round of negotiations starts next week the UK team will be continuing to work hard to find an agreement.
This is crucial work that matters to all sides. We may not be able to meet for a coffee or over lunch or dinner to resolve issues. But I spend much of my working day, just as before, engaging with Irish colleagues, who like us, are working from home, and are also finding all sorts of new and effective ways to operate.
Effective diplomacy has always adapted to changing times. Many of my conversations take place while I am walking so I get great exercise rather than eating too many calories. Mostly I’m on the phone, but very occasionally it’s surprising who you meet doing laps of the same local park!