LONDON — First came the shortages on supermarket shelves. Then the “worst stories” about the supply of refrigerated meat. Now, the rift over trade rules post-Brexit for Northern Ireland threatens to turn into a large-scale showdown between Britain and the European Union – and one that could also upset the United States.
On Wednesday, Britain said a Brexit treaty on Northern Ireland, negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and called the Northern Ireland Protocol, could cause so much trouble that it may have to be abandoned if it cannot be rewritten. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, said: it would seek creative solutions but would not renegotiate the deal.
For critics of Johnson, the latest statement is a testament to his lack of trustworthiness, his willingness to break international obligations and his denial of responsibility for the consequences of the withdrawal from Europe he championed. Mr Johnson’s allies accuse the European Union of inflexibility in applying rules, a petty lack of sensitivity to feelings in parts of Northern Ireland and vindictive hostility towards Britain for leaving the bloc.
Behind all the roar is fear at the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland, raising the stakes beyond typical trade disputes. President Biden, who often talks about his Irish heritage, has already warned Mr Johnson not to do anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement that helped end the violence.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
It’s fair to say that, as spy thriller-ish as the name is, this dry legal text won’t be found on most people’s summer beach lists.
The protocol aims to solve one of the thorniest problems of Brexit: what to do with the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the European Union.
This border is disputed and parts of it were fortified during the decades of violence known as The Troubles, but after a peace deal in the late 1990s, those visible signs of division have melted away along the open border. No one wants checkpoints back, but as part of his Brexit plan, Johnson insisted on leaving the European customs union and its internal market, allowing goods to flow freely across European borders without controls.
The protocol contains a plan to deal with this unique situation. It does this by effectively leaving Northern Ireland half within the European system and half within the British system. It sounds neat — makes sense, even — until you try to make it work.
Why doesn’t Britain like it?
The plan means more controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, effectively creating a border along the Irish Sea and dividing the United Kingdom. Faced with all the new bureaucracy, some UK companies have stopped stocking stores in Northern Ireland saying they simply cannot handle the extra paperwork required now.
This has outraged some Conservative lawmakers and fueled sentiment among those in Northern Ireland who want the region to remain part of the UK. The trade unionists, mainly Protestants, identify as British and believe the changes could threaten their future in the UK.
So while it may seem like a minor inconvenience to not be able to get hold of the right kind of sausage, for many union members it feels like their British identity is what’s in the deep fryer.
Why does the EU insist?
The bloc has been hot on its heels, in part because Mr Johnson not only signed the protocol, he negotiated it himself and pushed it through the UK Parliament.
British critics accuse Europeans of being overly strict and legalistic in their interpretation of the protocol and of being overzealous in required controls.
But EU leaders believe the bloc’s existential interests are being jeopardized. For Brussels, the internal market is one of the cornerstones. If that is undermined, it could threaten the building blocks of European integration.
What about those sausages?
According to the protocol, foods of animal origin – yes, such as sausage – coming from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland need a health certificate to ensure they meet European standards when they get to Ireland, which of course is still part of the European Union. market.
The British want a ‘light-touch’ system – ie one with minimal controls – on goods that companies promise to stay in Northern Ireland.
But the European Union wants Britain to sign up to European health certification rules to minimize the need for controls. So far, many of the rules have been abolished during a ‘grace period’, but that will end later this year.
What would happen if Britain withdrew from protocol?
Britain already says it has reasons to introduce an emergency clause known as Article 16 that allows it to act unilaterally, effectively suspending parts of the protocol. It doesn’t plan to do that for now, but the option remains on the table.
If Britain does this, the European side would most likely accuse Mr Johnson of breaking a treaty. This could lead to retaliation and even a trade war between Britain and the European Union.
Is this all just a bargaining tactic?
That is likely.
During the endless Brexit talks, Mr Johnson often played hard with the Europeans, sometimes relying on some so-called crazy strategy and threatening to leave the bloc without any deal.
So this may just be another roll of the negotiating dice, and most analysts believe the best outcome for the British would be to make concessions to the protocol from Brussels.
But isn’t it risky?
Yes, because in the end Mr Johnson has no real alternative to the protocol other than tearing it apart and challenging the Republic of Ireland to revive the Irish border. That could fuel sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, spark a trade war with Brussels and heighten tensions with the Biden government.
The impact on Northern Ireland aside, that wouldn’t be an ideal backdrop for the United Nations climate conference that Johnson will hold in Glasgow later this year — a time when he will need international allies.