On 8 November 2019 the Prime Minister vowed that there would be no checks on goods being transported from Great Britain into Norther Ireland. Last week the UK govt confirmed there *would* be checks. In the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU I asked Michael Gove if boris Johnson had knowingly misled public:
Stephen Kinnock: I just wanted to pick up on a point that you, Mr Frost, made in your letter to Michel Barnier, where you opened up the possibility of not being committed to a 100% tariff-free negotiation. Have you done a time estimate of how much time it would take your negotiating team and, indeed, the EU’s negotiating team to pivot away from a zero-tariff approach to line-by-line negotiations, given that we are six months away from ending the transition period?
David Frost: To be honest, I am sceptical about drawing any sort of precedent from how long it has taken in the past to do a trade agreement. We are already operating well beyond precedent in every element of this, looking at the timescale, and, luckily, we are also operating on the basis of textual precedent that enables us to draw on things that already exist, and so accelerate that timescale. Simply because it has taken months or years in other negotiations to achieve a tariffs negotiation, it does not mean that it will in this case. There are many things we have to do in this negotiation that normally take time and we will have to do very fast. I am confident we can do that, so I do not regard it as a practical difficulty. Clearly, there is a policy issue involved there that is significant.
Stephen Kinnock: It seems like a pretty big issue to throw into the middle of the negotiations six months before they are due to finish—that you are shifting away from this commitment to zero tariffs. What about business? Have you had conversations with business about the impact of shifting away from a zero-tariff approach? What feedback have you had from the business community?
David Frost: We all want a zero-tariff, zero-quota agreement. That is what we said we wanted in the political declaration and we still hope to get it. Every business that is observing this negotiation will prefer to have that, as would we.
The point I was making in my letter was more as a matter of logic. The EU says that zero tariffs and zero quotas are unprecedented and, therefore, need to have unprecedented level playing field provisions. We are saying, “Okay. Go back to precedented then. Then you will not need level playing field agreements perhaps”, and so far the answer from the EU has been, “Actually, we do. We still need them, even then”. I guess it leaves me sceptical that level playing field provisions, in the EU’s eyes, are much to do with access; they are more about control.
Stephen Kinnock: It is also the risk of sounding like you are making empty threats, because I guess the EU knows that, given there are only six months left and there does not seem to have been much consultation with our business community, we would not actually be able to push through on getting a line-by-line negotiation on tariffs, but that is maybe a conversation for another day.
I just wanted to turn to you, Mr Gove, if I may. Relating to Northern Ireland, on 8 November the Prime Minister told a group of Northern Irish businesses that there would categorically be absolutely no checks on trade crossing the Irish Sea. He even told them that, if anyone asked for them to fill in such paperwork, they should just throw it in the bin, but last week you confirmed that checks would indeed be required in two airports and at two major ports. Did the Prime Minister knowingly mislead the British people in November 2019?
Michael Gove: No.
Stephen Kinnock: Can you explain the massive disparity then between “throw all paperwork in the bin” on 8 November 2019 to yourself saying last week there will be checks and significant paperwork going forward? You have turned on a sixpence there.
Michael Gove: The first thing I would say is that we have always been clear—indeed it was the Prime Minister who outlined this in the course of the negotiations leading up to the signing of the withdrawal agreement—that we would extend the understanding that Northern Ireland is a single epidemiological zone to make sure that it was a single SPS zone. It was always the case that there would be additional processes that those who were exporting products of animal origin or other agri-food goods would have to face.
It is also the case that the protocol requires us to ensure that goods at risk of going into the EU’s single market are identified, and that is why we have a light-touch electronic process, which will ensure that those companies that are doing trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland can be monitored in an appropriate way, but there would not be the need for infrastructure of checks of the kind that are commonly understood.