Northern Ireland, UK trade remedies, Week in London column

Week in London: China steel trade defence review, Northern Ireland state of play

Apart from being on the receiving end of a potential dispute with the EU over wind turbine practices, this is what’s happened (or not) in British trade this week.

Chinese steel plate next in line for anti-dumping review

The UK has initiated a review of anti-dumping measures on heavy steel plate from China, as part of an ongoing review of trade defence measures ‘inherited’ from the EU at the point of Brexit.

The UK Trade Remedies Authority opened the view on Tuesday (25 January), with an invitation for affected stakeholders to submit their views.

It will probably be several months before the TRA rules on whether the current safeguard duties should be maintained, amended or abolished.

The measure in question covers “certain products of non-alloy or alloy steel which are often used in the manufacture of construction, mining and logging equipment, in oil and gas pipelines, for ship-building and construction of bridges and buildings,” the TRA said.

In all, 44 EU trade remedies measures were carried across into UK law when the UK left the EU, and the TRA is working through each one to “check if it is suitable for UK needs”, in the Authority’s words.

Chinese pricing under scrutiny

The assessment will look not only at whether the Chinese government is deemed to be still selling the goods at below cost price on the UK market, but also whether the ‘injury’ thereby caused to UK producers remains significant.

The latter assessment will be based on a review of market data over the four years from January 2018 to December 2021.

China is regularly castigated by UK, EU and US government figures for ‘anti-competitive’ practices in the steel sector – and the desire for a common front against such practices is one of the main drivers behind the current initiative to end the continuing trade spat over US safeguard tariffs on UK steel imports.

Latest EU-UK talks on Northern Ireland: little progress, mixed messages

There is still no indication as to how exactly the differences between the EU and the UK over implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol will be overcome, following Monday’s (24 January) much-anticipated meeting in Brussels between UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and Commission vice-president Maroŝ Šefčovič.

The background ‘mood music’ for the talks was more positive than for some time – and the meeting ended with a promise that the two would meet again towards the end of next week. Negotiations will continue at official level in the meantime.

The vice-president and foreign secretary were happy to emphasise the “constructive atmosphere” in which the talks had been held.

But there remains little clarity over what changes the two sides will make to streamline the Irish Sea trade ‘border’ between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And the UK government, under considerable political pressure both in London and in Belfast, has issued statements which offer little evidence of a détente between the two sides.

“The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed to protect the peace process and respect all communities in Northern Ireland. It is doing the opposite,” Truss’s Foreign Office claimed on Wednesday (26 January) in its official Twitter feed.

And in a parliamentary response the same day to the leader to of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is campaigning to have the protocol removed entirely, prime minister Boris Johnson condemned the “insane and pettifogging way” in which the Commission, in his view, was approaching Northern Ireland border controls.

Contrasting objectives on either side

Regardless of the rhetoric, however, both sides are adamant that a deal is there to be done.

The Commission is continuing to promote the package of easements on border checks and related paperwork which it submitted last October. 

For the UK government, however, the notion that Northern Ireland is now effectively part of the EU single market under the terms of the protocol is a source of considerable political embarrassment.

It is therefore pressing for the removal of almost all constraints on GB-NI trade, as well as EU acceptance that the European Court of Justice should have no role in Northern Ireland

But this is seen by the Commission as representing an unacceptable threat to the integrity of the EU single market, given that there is no trade border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

‘Laser focus’ on key issues

In a press conference after the meeting on 24 January, Šefčovič alluded to the UK’s political sensitivities by saying that Truss should stay “laser focused” on issues of importance to the region, such as movement of goods and customs formalities.

“If political goodwill is maintained, it could lead to a timely agreement that would immediately and significantly help operators on the ground,” he suggested.

It is widely believed that both sides are targeting a solution by the end of February, in order to ensure that the protocol issue does not drag on into the campaigning period for the Northern Ireland assembly elections, which are being held in early May.

But quizzed on the timeline for the negotiations, Šefčovič that he would not set “artificial deadlines” for the talks. The EU side would however “act with a sense of urgency”, he said.

A joint statement released by Truss and Šefčovič after the meeting made clear that officials would meet again over the course of this week, “with the Principals taking stock at political level next week”.

It has also been agreed that the EU-UK Joint Committee – the high-level group which oversees the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, of which the Northern Ireland protocol is a component part – will meet again “in the course of February”.

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