LONDON – For months, a battle over the status of Northern Ireland was the most thorny legacy of Brexit, even sparking a conflict known as the ‘worship wars’. Now Britain has raised the bar by demanding that the post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which it agreed to two years ago, be scrapped and replaced.
The European Union responded to that call on Wednesday with a far-reaching plan to solve the practical problems posed by that Brexit treaty – the Northern Ireland protocol – which has sparked a large-scale confrontation between Britain and the bloc. It’s a fight that could upset the United States.
The protocol aims to solve one of the most complex issues 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. .
Under the new proposal from Brussels, controls on food and animal products going from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland would be cut by 80 percent, customs paperwork for shipments of many goods would be reduced and the flow of medicines would be cut. are guaranteed.
“Today’s package has the potential to make a real, tangible difference in practice,” said Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission, the executive body of the 27-nation bloc, adding that this amounted to an “alternative model for the implementation of the protocol.”
But he made no concessions to a demand made Tuesday by Britain for an entirely new agreement, one that would remove any role for the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s highest court, as arbitrator in disputes. That idea had already been rejected by Brussels.
For critics of Johnson, the breach over protocol is evidence of 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 roars is fear at the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland, putting more at stake than 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 while the chord sounds like the title of a spy thriller, it’s actually dry legal text that won’t be found on most people’s vacation reading lists.
The border between Northern Ireland, which remains in the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which is part of the European Union, is disputed and parts of it were fortified during the decades of violence known as ‘The Troubles’. But after the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, those visible signs of division along the open border have melted away. No one wants checkpoints back, but as part of his Brexit plan, Johnson insisted on leaving the European customs union and single 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 its massive market) and half within the British system. It sounds neat — logical, 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 British companies have stopped supplying 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, mostly 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 signed the protocol, but also because he negotiated it himself and pushed it through the British Parliament.
British critics accuse Europeans of being too strict and legalistic in their interpretation of the protocol and of being overzealous with the required controls.
But EU leaders believe the bloc’s existential interests are being jeopardized. For Brussels, the internal market is one of the cornerstones of the market and it says it has to control what comes in. If that is undermined, it could threaten the building blocks of European integration.
What about those sausages?
According to the protocol, foodstuffs of animal origin – yes, such as sausages – arriving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland will require a health certificate to ensure they meet European standards when they arrive in Ireland, which is still is still part of the European Union’s internal 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 join European health certification rules to minimize the need for controls. So far, many of the regulations have been deviated from during a ‘grace period’ and, if passed, the latest proposals from Brussels should take the hiss out of the ‘worst wars’.
What would happen if Britain withdrew from protocol?
Britain says it already has grounds for introducing an emergency clause known as Article 16 that will allow 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 a possible 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.
The European Commission’s response has been to talk to business and other groups in Northern Ireland and focus on solving their practical problems. It hopes the concessions offered on Wednesday will meet the business groups in Northern Ireland, if not all of the demands of the London government. However, Brussels has limited room for maneuver if Britain really pushes for a change in the role of the European Court of Justice in the arbitration of disputes.
Isn’t it risky then?
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.
Monika Pronczuk contributed to reporting from Brussels