The European Union has warned it will “respond with all measures at its disposal” if the UK goes ahead with a plan to unilaterally rewrite the most contentious part of its Brexit deal, raising fears of a trade war.
How did the two sides end up once again at loggerheads, and what is the UK threatening to do? Foreign Secretary Liz Truss made a statement to parliament in which she set out her intentions in this regard. This is what we know so far.
What is the protocol?
The UK government’s decision to leave the EU single market and customs union after Brexit left both sides with a problem. It promised to keep the border with Ireland frictionless (ensuring that people and goods could flow freely between Northern Ireland and Ireland), which would be virtually impossible after leaving the EU trading area. So the question was how the UK and the EU could keep the Irish border free of any physical infrastructure without jeopardizing the integrity of the EU single market.
There were always two realistic solutions to the problem. The UK as a whole could remain within the EU’s regulatory orbit, at least as far as the free movement of goods is concerned, or it could accept that Northern Ireland would have a closer relationship with the European Union than the rest of the world. United Kingdom. Former Prime Minister Theresa May opted for the first model while Boris Johnson decided to opt for the second.
This led to the adoption of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which Johnson himself negotiated and signed. Members of his cabinet even characterized it as a “breakup deal.”
The protocol states that Northern Ireland remains within the UK customs union, but EU customs law continues to apply there. This means that Northern Ireland is, in practice, part of the EU customs territory. As a result, trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is no longer fluid, especially for goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Until now, these unavoidable frictions have been largely addressed by allowing grace periods. Major retailers currently do not need to comply with all the usual EU certification requirements, for example when importing products such as food from the rest of the UK. However, these grace periods may expire at some point, leaving uncertainty about the rules. There is concern that businesses will quickly become overwhelmed by complex bureaucratic requirements when trying to move goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.
What has changed on the UK side?
In a statement to the House of Commons, Truss confirmed that the UK government now wants to change the terms of the protocol, declaring it unworkable.
He argued that east-west trade frictions have undermined Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional relationship with the rest of the UK and said the Northern Ireland unionist community does not support the setup.
According to the government, this has led to political paralysis in the region. Indeed, the Democratic Unionist Party has blocked the formation of a new government (and the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly) following the recent elections, refusing to participate in power-sharing institutions until the protocol has been significantly revised. .
Despite having been aware of the consequences of the protocol and the possibility of such opposition to the agreement at the time it was concluded, the UK government now says it plans to introduce new legislation to unilaterally amend the protocol. However, details remain unclear and no date has been set for the legislation to be submitted to parliament.
Will the UK government maneuvers work?
The very existence of grace periods could be seen as a tacit admission of the fact that a strict application of the protocol could lead to significant friction in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For this reason, the European Commission proposed a package of amendments to the protocol last October. These were meant to be negotiated by both parties and had the potential to result in a concerted and consensual diplomatic effort that could have reduced trade friction. The government has rejected them, however, pointing out that these proposals “would go backwards with respect to the situation we have today with unemployment.”
Such a consensual approach would, of course, have been very different from what the UK government is now suggesting: the unilateral rewriting of parts of this international agreement.
It is not even clear how failure to comply with these international obligations will foster an environment in which power sharing can be restored in Northern Ireland. Even if the DUP appeases whatever comes of the new wording (and the EU undergoes a Damascene conversion and doesn’t react), one has to wonder if Sinn Féin, now Northern Ireland’s largest political party, would agree. with such unilateral amendments. when entering the executive.
In a recent article, Johnson has urged all parties to “embrace that hybridity” in the Brexit and protocol debates. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more hybrid regime than the one enjoyed by Northern Ireland. It follows the rules of the UK internal market when it comes to the free movement of services, people and capital, but has a much closer relationship with the EU when it comes to goods. It is far from a perfect solution, but it is a pragmatic arrangement that avoids the resurrection of a hard border on the island of Ireland. In fact, most of the newly elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly agree with its existence.
It therefore seems clear that all parties must work in a consensual and cooperative manner to improve implementation of the protocol so that everyone in Northern Ireland, whatever community they identify with, can accept the agreement. Politicians in Westminster, Belfast or elsewhere must not resort to the instrumental use of ethnic divisions as leverage for other political goals.