March 4. 2024. 8:35

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The Brief — Waiting for white smoke 

The white smoke is almost with us. The steady stream of briefings from EU and UK officials has become a free-flowing river. Close to two years of talks on the revision of the Northern Ireland protocol are, it appears, nearing a conclusion.

It’s not entirely clear what the new protocol will look like, but like all compromises, it will disappoint the purists.

The UK appears set to get a major reduction to the number of checks of British goods crossing the Irish Sea, while the EU is going to take a more relaxed view of goods travelling on to Ireland.

But European Court of Justice rulings will continue to have jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, whose firms will still be bound by EU single market rules rather than being able to choose between UK and European standards.

The devil will be in the detail, but these are concessions that will not impress hard Brexiteers and unionists in Northern Ireland who want the protocol to be torn up.

After the chaotic incompetence of the Johnson years and the six-week Liz Truss experiment, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has decided that he wants his government to be as boringly technocratic as possible. That could also mean that EU-UK relations lose some of the bitterness that has prevailed since 2016.

Getting the protocol past his own MPs, though a vote is unlikely to be required, will be tougher for Sunak than getting the deal with the European Commission.

The cries of betrayal are already being prepared by the likes of David Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister, who put together the ‘oven ready’ deal on the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol, which voters backed in December 2019 and which was then rushed through Parliament. In reality, the deal – as Johnson and Frost must have known – was never any more than half-baked and would always cause huge constitutional problems in Northern Ireland.

Frost has urged Rishi Sunak not to “sell our democratic birthright for a mess of pottage”, and we can expect to hear versions of the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra in the coming weeks.

Yet hard Brexiteers are clearly on the defensive.

Last weekend, a handful of the great and the good of British politics, including Vote Leave co-chair Michael Gove and veteran New Labour fixer Peter Mandelson gathered, in the quintessentially English style, at a stately home near Oxford for two days of talks with a working title of ‘How can we make Brexit work better with our neighbours in Europe?’

That points to the acceptance, including among many Leavers, that the Brexit dividends promised before and after the 2016 referendum have not materialised, particularly in economic terms, and that closer ties on economic, foreign and security and other issues would be mutually beneficial.

The white smoke could mark the end of years of pointless and destructive antagonism. Let’s hope so.

The Roundup

There is no alternative to Ukrainian victory as Kyiv presses on with efforts to fight back against invading Russia’s forces, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

Ukraine’s Western allies who can deliver battle tanks to Ukraine should do so right away, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Friday but dampened Kyiv’s hopes for fighter jets or long-range missiles.

European lawmakers see the Commission’s recent communication on fertilisers as just a first step to ensuring the EU’s strategic autonomy in this sector, suggesting to consider more long-term actions to support struggling farmers.

Increasing physical activity among Europeans could save EU countries €8 billion annually, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’ estimated in their report published on Friday.

German Minister of Finance Christian Lindner and the Austrian Minister of Finance Magnus Brunner are pushing European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness not to ban inducement-based financial advice in the EU Commission’s upcoming Retail Investment Strategy.

France’s left-wing parties generally differ on political strategy, but when it comes to the planned pension reform, the left camp, grouped in the NUPES alliance, is united against the government’s bill.

The Swedish presidency of the EU Council proposed giving media outlets the power to scrutinise content restriction decisions in a new compromise text to the Media Freedom Act circulated this week.

As always on Friday, you can find your weekly dose of essential policy news in our Tech Brief.

Look out for…

  • Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans at Munich Security Conference, meets with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
  • Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, High Representative Josep Borrel in Munich.
  • Commissioner Ylva Johansson receives Serbian Interior Minister Mr Bratislav Gašić on Monday.
  • Foreign Affairs Council on Monday.