It would not be a great situation if we used all of the time for questions and did not get any answers. If I miss something now, I will try to pick it up in the next round because there will be similar questions from many Deputies.
The British Prime Minister has described their approach to trying to amend elements of the protocol and its implementation in colourful language, as he often does, when he talks about barnacles and sandpaper. What he means is he wants to try to make it more acceptable and to smooth over some of the areas that have caused significant political friction. In principle, both the UK and the EU want to try to do that together where they can. They also have to, and the EU in particular has to, ensure they do that within the confines of the protocol itself. These discussions are not a renegotiation of the protocol. It is about using the flexibilities that are there to the maximum extent possible to try to find a pragmatic and flexible way of implementing the protocol that minimises the impact on trade in Northern Ireland on goods coming from Great Britain. There is no friction at all on goods going the other way.
The unilateral action of the British Government was deeply unhelpful. It set back relationships significantly at a time when there was some momentum in discussions between both sides to try to find ways in which, for example, grace periods could be extended and other flexibilities could be found to try to deal with some of the pragmatic frustrations in Northern Ireland linked to the implementation of the protocol earlier in the year. Unfortunately, unilaterally announcing an extension to grace periods and other unilateral actions around soil, plants and so on were actions that undermined trust and relationships and that have ultimately resulted in the EU preparing a legal action. It is to be hoped that will not be needed, but unless trust can be rebuilt, which it is being, the EU will have no choice but to look at those options.
What is outstanding? The discussions on the relationship between Vice-President Šefčovič and Lord Frost have improved significantly and it is important to say that. Their technical teams have been working closely together to try to itemise what parts of the protocol can be managed in a way that, first, allows the implementation of the protocol to be robust and to protect the integrity of the Single Market and, second, can be done in a way that minimises disruption to trade. There are about 26 issues that have been itemised in that discussion so far and about 20 of them can be resolved through technical negotiation. Then there are about half a dozen issues that are much more political and more difficult to deal with. Those issues may involve negotiation and changes in approach that can allow the protocol to be implemented more easily.
If one takes, for example, the most high profile of those issues, namely sanitary and phytosanitary standards, SPS, we know that previously the EU had effectively offered what it terms as "dynamic alignment" for the UK with EU SPS standards. There would have been no need for checks on live animals, foodstuffs, plants or soil if there was an SPS dynamic alignment agreement across plant health, food and animals. The UK Government decided not to do that. It does not like the idea of dynamic alignment because it does not want to be tied to EU rules and EU rule-setting. Instead, it proposed an agreement around equivalence of standards and that the EU would recognise UK standards as equivalent to the EU. That was unacceptable to the EU for understandable reasons. I hope the negotiating teams will be able to look at this space and see whether there is a middle ground position between dynamic alignment and equivalence on SPS standards. Such a position could dramatically reduce the number of tests that are required on goods coming into Larne and Belfast ports from Great Britain into the Northern Ireland market and into the Single Market via Northern Ireland. That is something that is a political decision and not just a technical one that both sides need to try to make progress on.
There are a few other areas of discussion, such as where medicines get approval and for how long. The EU wants to ensure there are no barriers to medicines finding their way into Northern Ireland, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. At the same time, we cannot have a situation where medicines are being approved in the UK for Northern Ireland and then sold on into the Single Market where there is essentially a UK approvals mechanism providing medicines into the EU Single Market and bypassing the European Medicines Agency.
Obviously, that cannot be facilitated. How do we secure stability of supply of medicines into Northern Ireland but not in a way that undermines the integrity of the EU Single Market on medicines? Likewise, there is a series of issues on tariffs, steel being perhaps the best example. Again, we are trying to ensure that Northern Ireland can have access to steel but that it would not be used as a vehicle to import steel into the EU Single Market and avoid tariffs in doing so. There are some issues around that as well.
Issues less linked to the protocol but that are linked to the broader trade and co-operation agreement that I think relate to Northern Ireland that need further discussion are around country of origin labelling and the consequences for goods produced in Northern Ireland that are effectively British goods being able to benefit or not from EU trade agreements that need to apply from a country of origin perspective to EU-produced goods. That is a big issue for some in the agrifood sector, particularly around the dairy industry where a very significant portion of Northern Ireland's milk is processed south of the Border and in many cases is in a mixed milk pool with milk in the Republic of Ireland that is turned into powders, butters, cheeses, yoghurts, infant formula and a whole range of other things. Country of origin issues need further discussion and negotiation. That is also true of other supply chain issues, where, for example goods that originate in the EU that go to a distribution centre in the UK and are essentially re-boxed or repackaged and redistributed back into Ireland, into the Single Market, whether or not tariffs apply to those goods - at the moment they do - because they are no longer considered EU goods because the integrity of those goods are not monitored in the EU Single Market when they are re-boxed or re-badged in the UK, but nor are they UK goods because they are not produced in the UK. The goods are effectively stateless and, therefore, tariffs apply. There is a whole range of issues that need discussion in a way that is facilitated by pragmatic partnership between the EU and the UK to try to find solutions to many of these issues. If we could find a way forward on sanitary and phytosanitary controls, SPS, that could significantly reduce the inspection burden on goods coming into Northern Ireland ports from Great Britain which would be a win for everybody. Hopefully, it is something we can see some progress on.
I will make no comments on the DUP other than in the context of the North-South Ministerial Council. Yes, there was an issue about a DUP Minister not being present at a transport North-South Ministerial Council but the meeting subsequently happened and there was a Minister present. There is a potential issue about an agricultural North-South Ministerial Council meeting tomorrow but we will have to see what happens with that later this evening.
Of course the Good Friday Agreement is our Northern Star in terms of trying to protect its institutions and foundation as the basis of relationships, respect and institutional interaction both within Northern Ireland, North-South on the island of Ireland and also east-west between the British and Irish Governments. To that effect, we are hoping to have a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference at some point in the coming weeks and months because there are many issues that Dublin and London need to be talking to each other about in the context of Northern Ireland and the relationship between these islands.
Finally on the opportunity for the Northern Ireland protocol, it is not something that is being discussed yet but believe me, it will be in time. I refer to the business opportunities for Northern Ireland where they have a foot in both markets. Anyone producing goods in Northern Ireland has unfettered access into the GB market and completely unfettered access into the EU Single Market for goods. That has got to be a significant business opportunity for Northern Ireland, which I hope that, when over time we address, in a pragmatic and flexible, way the political differences and tensions around the protocol, can be a source of optimism, investment and opportunity for businesses in Northern Ireland.