In language likely to raise eyebrows in Berlin, Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has described the German commitment to the Northern Ireland Protocol as “an avatar”. Ahead of his meeting with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock this Friday, Cleverly said: “I think often what people say they want and what people actually want are subtly different”.
The German coalition government agreed a treaty last year containing an explicit commitment that the Brexit agreements, “especially the Northern Ireland Protocol, need to be fully implemented“. Berlin has consistently backed the EU Commission in seeking full implementation of the Protocol as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, signed by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019.
Cleverly and Baerbock attend the first „UK-Germany Strategic Dialogue“, held in London and initiated after Brexit. In the afternoon both are speaking at Königswinter Conference, a cornerstone of Anglo-German relations founded in 1950. Baerbock travels to Ireland before arriving in the UK.
In his meeting this Friday with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly aims to convince his German counterpart to approach the row around the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) “in practical terms, rather than theoretical, purist terms“.
Cleverly explained in an exclusive interview with WELT that he was working on “a way whereby we protect the Belfast Good Friday agreement, the integrity of the EU Single Market“ while both sides “continue our strong working relationship and trading relationship, protecting animal welfare standards and sanitary standards“.
The Foreign Secretary questioned if “it really matters whether this is strictly through the vehicle of the NIP as it’s currently drafted“. Cleverly insisted “our friends and colleagues in the EU are pragmatic people“. The perfect “should not be the enemy of good“. If there were „subtly different ways“ of solving the conflict, Brussels should not “turn around and say: well, it completely is everything we want to accomplish. But it’s not called NI protocol – so we’re not even going to consider it“.
According to sources, the British government insists in ongoing talks on a risk-based approach for goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Brussels takes an EU rules-based stance. Both sides have lately not sought confrontation – the controversial Northern Ireland Bill has been taken off the agenda in the House of Lords for the time being. The EU Commission has not pushed through seven infringement procedures launched against the British government.
Asked if the UK was slowly returning to the EU since there was cooperation on Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community and British engagement in an EU-led defence capability project, Cleverly responded: “We‘re not rejoining the EU. But what we have always said is that our relationship with our friends in Europe – the other European countries, because we are still very much a European country –, our relationship with other European countries will always be pragmatic, will always be driven by our mutual interest. We are demonstrating we‘re working together. Horizon (the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation from which the UK is excluded since Brexit) for example, there‘s no reason why that shouldn‘t progress, we‘re looking to do that.” Britain und the EU were also working jointly on support to Ukraine in its defense against Russia, on sanctions against Russian oligarchs or on Russia being excluded from the Swift banking system.
The Foreign Secretary said he considers Olaf Scholz’ “Zeitenwende“ a huge change in German foreign policy posture and “an incredibly courageous thing to do“. „I was in Berlin in the early part of this calendar year. Some weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. And the tone that I picked up from lots of people across the wide political spectrum, and people that aren‘t particularly political, was: We must be careful not to be provocative. We have seen Germans were saying that Germany had spent decades trying to pull Russia more broadly into the kind of Western European frame of reference. That this is tough, but definitely something worth investing in. Since the invasion, we have seen a huge change in German foreign policy posture.“
Asked if he shared many Germans’ continued regret that Britain left the EU, Cleverly said: ”We haven‘t gone anywhere. We are still here.” He stressed he was “happy to hear on one level the attitude from Germany ’oh, wish you’d come back’ rather than a ‘wish you‘d left sooner”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had shown “that we‘re able to work very, very closely and very, very effectively without the structures of the EU.”
Referring to the German Foreign Minister, Cleverly said: “I didn‘t necessarily think that as a staunchly conservative Foreign Minister I would find myself agreeing quite so often with a Green Party opposite number.”