Northern Ireland, UK Australia & NZ, UK-EU negotiations, Week in London column

Week in London: UK Australia FTA ratification, Northern Ireland, mobile phone chargers

Welcome to another week in UK trade policy.

Government report paves way towards ratifying UK-Australia FTA

The British government has taken its final step on the road towards submitting the UK-Australia FTA for parliamentary ratification, with the publication of a report on the agri-food and environmental implications of the deal.

The so-called ‘Section 42’ report – named after the relevant part of the UK’s 2020 Agriculture Act – was published on Monday (6 June).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, its conclusion is that the relevant parts of the UK-Australia FTA “are consistent with the maintenance of UK levels of statutory protection in relation to human, animal or plant life or health, animal welfare, and the environment”.

The S.42 report builds on the advice offered by the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which reached a very similar conclusion in its own report on the Australia deal published in April.

This means that the formal step of laying the draft agreement before parliament will be taken “soon”, according to a department for international trade source.

Parliamentary procedures under scrutiny

The procedures for ratifying the UK-Australia FTA have been the subject of intense scrutiny and not a little controversy.

As the deal is the first of what are likely to be a substantial number of UK FTAs needing to be approved by the parliament over the coming years, government and MPs have been jostling to establish favourable precedents.

The FTA itself will be ratified under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010, which prescribes that MPs must have at least 21 parliamentary sitting days, counting from the date on which the agreement is laid before parliament, to scrutinise the deal prior to a vote.

In reality, however, the House of Commons’ international trade committee has been conducting a formal inquiry into the deal and its implications since 17 December 2021 – just days after the final accord was signed by the government and the text published.

Ratification will in any case not be complete until the parliament has also approved the so-called ‘Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill’, which will adapt UK legislation to bring it into compliance with the provisions of the Australia and New Zealand FTAs on public procurement.

“The government expects [this] bill to follow the usual timetable for primary legislation and a date for second reading of the bill will be announced in due course,” the DIT source told Borderlex.

Australian ratification process held up by election

On the Australian side, the ratification process has run foul of the parliamentary election on 21 May, which resulted in a change of government and the election of a centre-left administration under Anthony Albanese.

The UK-Australia FTA had been referred to the relevant parliamentary committee – the joint standing committee on treaties – on 8 February. However, that committee was formally dissolved on 11 April, in advance of the election.

This means that in due course the new Albanese government will have to re-submit the FTA for approval by a newly-constituted committee.

Weakened Johnson pauses plans to ditch Northern Ireland protocol

Plans by the government to submit a proposal to override key trade elements of the Northern Ireland protocol have been thrown into disarray following a chaotic week in UK politics.

The promised proposal to unilaterally abandon many of the checks which currently apply on movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was originally slated for publication this week.

But it has had been delayed until next week at the earliest, following a challenge to prime minister Boris Johnson by many of his own parliamentary colleagues.

In a secret ballot on Monday (6 June), Conservative party MPs voted by 211 votes to 148 to defeat a motion of no-confidence in the embattled prime minister.

Johnson thus remains as prime minister – but with his authority badly damaged after 41% of his own MPs had voted for his removal.

Divisions within government over protocol plan

The government remains committed to the draft legislation to override protocol constraints on trade, even though it would provoke outrage in the EU.

However, there are reportedly divisions among ministers as to whether the proposal should commit to going ahead and scrapping contentious aspects of the protocol – or merely giving the government powers to take such steps at some point in the future, if ongoing negotiations between the EU and the UK were to fail to deliver the desired outcomes.

This week’s no-confidence vote also raises the distinct possibility of the legislation being voted down in parliament before it can be brought into effect, with Conservative ‘rebels’ now likely to be emboldened to resist a proposal which many view as being in contravention of international law.

EU position on protocol ‘has hardened’

Both the UK and EU are nominally committed to continuing to negotiate on improvements to the implementation of the protocol, in the interests of allowing goods to flow more freely between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But EU officials have warned the UK against taking unilateral action, with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warning that the EU’s position on the protocol had “hardened”.

Coveney added that the European Commission had shown flexibility and wanted to do more, but said it “needs a partner” to achieve negotiated changes to the protocol.

EU mobile phone charger laws create new post-Brexit dilemma for UK

Electronic devices have become the latest point of controversy in the rows over Northern Ireland and its status within the EU single market.

This followed confirmation that under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, the EU’s plan for a harmonised charger type for mobile phones and other devices, which was approved by the European Parliament on Tuesday (7 June), would apply in Northern Ireland once the plan became law in the EU.

A UK government spokesperson said that London was “not currently considering replicating this requirement” for Great Britain.

As things stand, therefore, non-compliant chargers, such as Apple’s ‘lightning’ connector, would become illegal in Northern Ireland as from autumn 2024 – but they would remain legal in Great Britain.

‘Risk of divergence in product standards’

The dilemma for the UK was spelt out in a report published by the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee last December, after the Commission’s charger harmonisation proposals were published:

“Absence of action [on the part of the UK government in response to the EU initiative] may create a risk of divergence in product standards between parts of the UK, although manufacturers could decide voluntarily to introduce the EU-mandated universal charging standard on their devices sold in Great Britain, to reduce supply chain complexity,” it noted.

“If they do not, businesses in Great Britain may avoid supplying the Northern Irish market if the particular version of the mobile devices they sell are not manufactured with the USB-C receptacle that the European Commission wants to make mandatory.”

The phone charger debate may thus prove to be an early test of the power of the much-vaunted ‘Brussels effect’ – the EU’s indirect influence on the formulation of technical standards in jurisdictions outside the Union through the sheer size of the EU single market – against the UK’s determination to retain regulatory autonomy.

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