Northern Ireland Protocol: Letter to Lord Frost

Letter from External Affairs Secretary warning UK Government against triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

To: The Rt Hon Lord Frost CMG, Minister of State, Cabinet Office
Angus Robertson, Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

I am increasingly alarmed at the continued lack of progress in the talks between the UK Government and the European Union in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol. While your statement on Friday following your meeting with Vice-President Šefčovič refered to a constructive spirit, it provided little if any reassurance that a positive way forward would be found. This has the potential to cause yet further great harm to Scotland.

You are aware that the Scottish Government – and the electorate of Scotland – profoundly regrets the decision to leave the EU. The damage to Scotland has been compounded by the UK Government’s “hard Brexit” approach, and, as we pointed out at the time, the reckless decision to take Scotland, and the UK, out of the European Single Market in the middle of the pandemic.

Throughout the whole Brexit process the interests of Scotland have been ignored. Recent export statistics underline the impact of being forced out of the EU. The Centre for European Reform analysis isolated the impact of Brexit from the pandemic, and showed that leaving the EU has reduced UK goods trade by 15.8% as of August 2021. This is in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility which forecast that UK trade will be 15% lower in the long run due to Brexit. In the first two quarters of 2021, Scotland’s food exports to the EU, including fish and seafood, were 14% lower than the equivalent period in 2019. This compares with a 3% drop for non-EU exports of food over the same period. It is clear that this decline reflects not just the impact of the pandemic, but also the irresponsible approach the UK Government has taken to leaving the EU. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility now also forecasts the impact of Brexit on the UK economy will be worse in the long run than Covid-19.

It seems barely believable that the UK Government is now contemplating an action – the triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol – that could result in a disastrous trade dispute with the EU which would clearly hold back recovery from the pandemic. That would be a further act of economic vandalism at the worst possible time.

The prospect of a catastrophic cliff-edge “no deal” outcome which haunted Scotland for much of 2019 has even been raised again with suggestions that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement could be collapsed depending on the actions you take over the coming weeks. I note in your statement in the House of Lords that the talks process has not reached its end and I therefore urge you not to trigger Article 16 – which as I set out in my letter to you on October 11 would have deeply damaging consequences for EU-UK relations – and instead come to a negotiated solution. The Protocol of course is part of the Withdrawal Agreement drawn up jointly by the UK and EU and which was hailed by the Prime Minister as a “fantastic moment” for the UK.

The increasingly ideological and confrontational approach the UK Government has taken has clearly damaged levels of trust in a manner that leaves me profoundly concerned about what might unfold in the next few weeks.

It is critical that the UK Government responds constructively to the EU’s new proposals on the Protocol, and that Devolved Governments are now meaningfully engaged and their views heard. Almost every aspect of life in Scotland is affected by the UK’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU and by the wider EU-UK relationship. Both are now imperilled by this dispute over a Protocol which the UK Government itself negotiated and signed up to only two years ago. In the meantime I do urge you to grasp the opportunity of the ongoing talks to find durable solutions.

Given the gravity of the situation and the possible implications for the whole TCA, I strongly believe that there needs to be an urgent discussion between yourself and the Devolved Governments. I therefore request that you convene such a meeting as a matter of urgency and certainly before any decisions are taken in regard to Article 16

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