On Tuesday, Michel Barnier gave EU ambassadors a downbeat assessment of the negotiations on the future relationship with the UK. The EU's chief negotiator also spoke briefly about the row over the EU having an office in Belfast.

The EU believes that the Irish Protocol renders such an office a practical if not legal necessity, since at the end of this year Northern Ireland will be operating under the EU’s customs and regulatory rulebook, while the rest of the UK won’t.

The UK insists the Protocol does not legally oblige London to approve such an office, and that its very presence would be divisive.

By all accounts, there is growing frustration in national capitals that the EU is still having to devote time and energy to the Brexit issue, given the overwhelming cost and urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

"You really got a sense [at the meeting] that there is no time or patience for this now," says one EU diplomat. 

The issue of the EU office appears parked for the moment. Michel Barnier told ambassadors there were more pressing concerns.

The transition is due to expire in little over seven months' time, and the EU fears that preparations are lagging seriously behind. What is envisaged is a radical new regime of checks and controls on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

"Regardless of what happens," says one EU source, "unless the transition is extended then conditions will change drastically. We know how it’s going to happen. We’ve no excuse not to plan ahead."

On 30 April, the European Commission Task Force circulated a reminder to member states of the work that needs to be done.

The UK will have to apply the European Union’s customs rulebook at Northern ports and airports. 

There will need to be facilities in place to ensure all food products entering the North across the Irish Sea conform to EU food standards.

There will be a dual VAT system.  When it comes to goods and excise, EU VAT rules will apply, but when it comes to services, UK VAT rules will apply.

If Northern fishermen catch fish in UK waters and land them in Kilkeel, County Down, then the tariff regime for those fish will have to be worked out, since Northern Ireland will de facto be in the EU’s customs area.

The EU expects IT systems and databases in place for customs, VAT and excise so that the North can plug into the EU system. 

Work on this needs to be underway by 1 June, says the Commission, while preparing customs infrastructure and so-called sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) control posts needs to start "immediately" if everything is to be ready by 1 January, 2021. 

A further workload is required when it comes to the rights issue.

Under Article 2 of the Protocol, if there are any protections of civil and individual rights in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that are enhanced or underpinned by EU law, then the UK has agreed that none of those rights can be diminished.

This, too, is a complex and sensitive area.  In some areas, Northern Ireland will continue to apply and follow EU equality directives which other parts of the UK will not.

Whereas the UK has been combatively rejecting the EU’s demands for a level playing field in the free trade negotiations, it’s clear that some of those level playing field issues - especially labour law - will have to continue applying in Northern Ireland because there is a read-across to the equality at work rights that are enshrined in the GFA.

As such there are six EU equality directives with which Northern Ireland (but nowhere else in the UK) will be obliged to keep pace. 

These cover equal treatment in employment, in self-employment, in social security, in access to goods and services, and in non-discrimination in terms of ethnicity and race.

If the EU upgrades any of those directives, the Stormont Assembly will have to do the same.

Parliament Buildings, Stormont

UK officials stress that the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act (WAA) already provides for this to happen.  For example, the WAA has created the "dedicated mechanism", demanded by the Protocol, to ensure there will be no diminution of rights.

The dedicated mechanism is effectively the North’s Human Rights and Equality Commissions working together to provide both monitoring and enforcement.

Both bodies will be able to force the Stormont Assembly to keep pace with any new EU legislation which reflects GFA rights, or to prevent it from bringing in laws that would undermine those rights.

The Human Rights and Equality Commissions can also take legal action against the UK government on behalf of individuals, and bids have already been lodged with the UK Treasury to give these new powers financial resources. 

They can also bring issues to the attention of the Specialised Committee, which implements the Protocol, which in turn can push the matter up the line to the Joint Committee, chaired by Michael Gove and Maroš Šefčovič on the EU side.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission also has a monitoring role if there are any spheres of North-South cooperation, or, for example, the Common Travel Area (CTA) or security cooperation, in which rights might be in jeopardy once the UK leaves at the end of the year.

In general, the Northern agencies will have to be vigilant if there is any evidence of the UK unpicking EU law where such unpicking diminishes equality rights and safeguards.

"Translating the broadly drafted rights in the Good Friday Agreement into EU law, which must be preserved," says Les Allamby, the chief commissioner with the North’s Human Rights Commission, "will be a significant challenge. 

"For example, which parts of EU law will be covered by the GFA’s right to equality of opportunity in all economic and social activity regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity?"

While the EU believes progress in other areas has been too slow, there are indications that behind the scenes there has been progress.

The first meeting of the Specialised Committee on 30 April was soured by the controversy over the EU presence in Belfast.  However, there was a more constructive mood over what the UK has already put in place, and what it is planning to put in place.

"There was some concrete evidence of implementation on the UK side," says a senior EU source briefed on the meeting.  "Our initial concern was that this would turn into yet another stock-taking where everybody would recognise what needed to be done and go home.  But the UK went to some lengths to try and demonstrate that they were actually engaged at a practical level in implementation."

As the various parts of the European Commission get to grips with the Protocol, the heads of the relevant directorates-general have been writing to the UK to ascertain what technical measures are being put in place.  There have been a number of responses from Whitehall.

It’s understood the UK has told the Commission it has recruited an extra 700 vets overall to prepare for regulatory controls at EU-facing ports when the transition ends.  Some of these new recruits will be earmarked for the Irish Protocol.

There has been at least one video conference between officials from the Commission’s customs division and Treasury officials on setting up those IT systems mentioned above.

But the infrastructure needed to house both vets and customs officials, and to allow them to carry out inspections and controls, is the really sensitive part, made more so because senior British ministers, including Boris Johnson himself, have said there will not be any checks and controls.

"There’s no question of there being checks on goods going NI/GB or GB/NI," Johnson told Sky News in December. "We’re a UK government, why would we put checks on goods going from NI to GB or GB to NI? It doesn’t make sense."

On 22 January, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson asked Johnson in the House of Commons if "unfettered access" would also apply to "goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?" and the prime minister responded: "Emphatically it does."

On 11 March, Michael Gove, the minister in charge of implementing the Protocol, repeatedly told the House of Commons Future Relationship with the EU Committee that the question of whether there would be any additional customs checks on GB-NI goods traffic was "a matter for the Joint Committee" (which brings together both sides to implement the Withdrawal Agreement).

As far as the EU is concerned, the Joint Committee does not decide on whether or not there will be additional checks and controls, but rather what goods can be deemed at risk of entering the Irish Republic, and thus the EU’s single market.

But there was a significant shift in the British position during a follow up exchange between Michael Gove and Hilary Benn MP, this time during a committee hearing on 27 April.

Instead of saying there would be "unfettered access" for businesses bringing goods to Northern Ireland, Mr Gove said the UK government wanted "to make sure we can have the smoothest possible access" for such goods.

"What I take from that very strongly," says one senior official familiar with the issues, "is that he definitely did not say there would be unfettered access in both directions, which is what Boris Johnson said in January. Gove conspicuously doesn’t say that."

But what does the "smoothest possible access" mean? 

Currently live animals entering Northern Ireland from GB are already checked at the Port of Larne.  That is because the island of Ireland is treated as a single epidemiological entity.

Under the Protocol, that system will need to be expanded to ensure that all food products coming in comply with EU safety standards, as well as animals and plants.

In its technical note circulated to member states, the European Commission spelled out that the UK "should clarify whether it intends to designate additional posts for the performance of official controls in Northern Ireland (e.g., Larne port), given that importation of goods subject to official controls is only possible through such posts."

In other words, the checks have to be done at ports, and the port where live animal checks are currently done will not be sufficient given the scale of the new system.

According to the Commission, Larne does not have the capacity to unpack animal and food products and provide chilled storage facilities if those goods have to be checked or prevented from circulation.

Without such facilities, the Commission technical note says, there would be "a significant risk of disruption of the trade flows entering Northern Ireland."

This gets us into very tricky territory.

In the technocratic world of the European Commission, concepts such as "designated posts" to control food products coming into the EU from the outside world are entirely innocuous. 

In Northern Ireland, such words denote infrastructure and that infrastructure may be perceived as a border between the North and Great Britain.

Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister Edwin Poots of the DUP has consistently said he would not accept any checks or infrastructure at Northern ports. 

So, the nature of the dilemma confronting all sides is one of pretence. 

Make the infrastructure and checks as low key as possible, so as to avoid inflaming unionist sensitivities, but as robust as possible so that the European Commission and member states are satisfied that the EU’s single market and customs union are protected.

It could be argued that London’s rhetorical record on this since December is an example of tapered mendacity.

MIchael Gove

Michael Gove’s admission on 27 April that goods would be subject to "the smoothest possible" access (as opposed to unfettered access) was a subtle shift to the truth, and a milestone by which he can later claim that he had been straight on the issue.

The infrastructure, however, will still need to be built.

The Port of Larne is a private sector entity, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the P&O Ferries Group.  Belfast Harbour is a public trust port.

It’s understood that the choreography to comply with the infrastructure demands of the Protocol would be as follows:

The port operators, who know what facilities, office space, parking bays and other systems need to be in place, set out what they will have to build in order to be compliant with the Protocol.

They will submit their plans to DAERA, the UK’s department of agriculture, which in turn will assess if the new facilities are fit for purpose.

Once DAERA has made its assessment, it will refer the plans to the European Commission, which will in due course say whether or not the ports comply with EU animal health controls and can be authorized as EU-certified Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). 

"That’s a three, maybe four-stage process," says one source familiar with the process. 

The UK has written to the EU on how it will manage this choreography, and will send a follow up letter with further details before the end of June.

Another major challenge will be figuring out what goods flowing from GB-NI are liable for tariffs, and what goods will be exempt.

This is covered by Article 5 of the Protocol.  There are goods which are coming directly into Northern Ireland for sale, goods which will be part of a supply chain or manufacturing process in Northern Ireland, and goods which have originated in a third country which has a trade deal with the UK.

The bottom line for the EU is that all goods are essentially guilty until proven innocent. In other words, all goods will be deemed at risk of moving across the border into the EU’s single market unless they can be clearly shown not to be at risk.

If the latter, then either the trader pays the tariff and is later reimbursed, or the trader is exempt altogether.

It will be up to the Joint Committee to figure out how all this will work. 

The UK wants as pragmatic and flexible an approach as possible.  The European Commission has told traders in Northern Ireland that there are flexibilities within the rules, but the rules - ie, the checks and controls - must apply.

UK officials insist they respect the EU's need to protect its single market, but they also point out that the Protocol commits both sides to use their "best endeavours" to minimise the impact.

UK officials too now talk a lot about the Good Friday Agreement.

This represents a clear shift in strategy, or at least messaging.  In briefings officials insist that the GFA must be the lodestar of how the Protocol is implemented, and the lens through which all decisions by the Joint Committee should be taken.

In other words, the UK believes that if the Protocol is too stringently implemented, it will upset the unionist population, the business community, and inhibit trade between the North and Great Britain, and thus undermine the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.

Indeed, a number of officials derided the European Commission’s technical note on the outstanding elements of the Protocol that need to be completed, because it contained no mention of the Good Friday Agreement.

Critics will say that the most enthusiastic Brexiteers and Vote Leave ground troops, who now populate Boris Johnson’s government, did not display such reverence for the Good Friday Agreement during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Nor did they have much time for Theresa May’s solution to the Irish problem, which would have kept checks and controls at a minimum through her UK-wide customs union with the EU, and the high alignment free trade agreement to which she aspired.

Nonetheless, this is where things stand. The grating tensions between the EU and UK on the Protocol remain, but the wheels are beginning to turn.