The Chairperson welcomed Professor D. Phinnemore, Professor of European Politics at Queen's University Belfast, to the meeting.
Professor Phinnemore provided the Committee with an overview of the Brexit process, and Northern Ireland’s position within it so far.
He advised the Committee that the UK had left the EU on 31st January, 2020, having negotiated and signed the Withdrawal Agreement. He explained that a key part of the Withdrawal Agreement was the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was designed to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland.
He advised the Committee that the definitive end date of the transition period was 31st December, 2020. He explained that there were increasing concerns regarding the likelihood of the EU and UK reaching agreement on the post-transition relationship between the bloc and the UK, particularly regarding trade, and that there was the distinct possibility of a “no deal” by the end of that period. He outlined that the main differences between the bloc and the UK Government centred on the idea of a level playing field, governance and state aid. The Committee was reminded that the agreement did require the approval of the European Parliament.
He highlighted, however, that significant developments had taken place over the last few days as a result of the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill which had been published on 9th September.
The Members were advised that the Internal Market Bill, if passed, would override part of the legal obligations within the Withdrawal Agreement and the NI Protocol by allowing a Government Minister to disapply or modify “exit summary declarations” for the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. He pointed out that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Right Hon. Brandon Lewis, had acknowledged that the provisions relating to the NI Protocol would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
He advised the Committee that an Extraordinary UK-EU Joint Committee meeting had taken place earlier that day. He also outlined the UK Government’s legal position in relation to the Internal Market Bill and the Northern Ireland Protocol, whereby the Government had highlighted the fundamental principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. He stated that the last few days, in the aftermath of the announcement of the Internal Market Bill, had marked a significant low point in relations between the EU and the UK since the referendum result of 2016.
The Committee was advised that the NI Protocol would come into force, irrespective of what happened by December 2020, and that the implications for disruption in NI would be greater if there was no free trade agreement in place between the UK and the EU.
In response to a Member’s question, Professor Phinnemore confirmed that a challenge could be brought, meaning that the UK could be called to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg. He explained that the jurisdiction of the CJEU extended beyond the transition period for as long as the Protocol was in force with regard to those element of EU law that the UK was committed to implement as part of the Protocol.
A further number of Members sought clarity in relation to the Internal Market Bill.
The Chairperson thanked Professor Phinnemore for his presentation and he retired from the meeting.