Boris Johnson’s government has new proposals for post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland. The message to the EU is quite clear. The Prime Minister has no intention of honoring the solemn commitments made in the Irish protocol.
Not so long ago, he described as “brilliant” the agreement he had concluded with Brussels. Now he denies it. The signal to the rest of the world? Britain’s signature on international treaties is pretty much worthless.
To be clear, there can be no magic solution to the row raging between London and Brussels over how the new trade deals between the UK and the Republic of Ireland will work.
The imperative of the Brexit deal was to keep the border open between Northern Ireland and the Republic at the heart of the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement. The EU’s legitimate interest was to preserve the integrity of its single market by ensuring that Northern Ireland does not become a back door for illicit trade. Johnson’s insistence that the UK leave the single market and customs union has removed any possibility of a clear answer.
The Memorandum of Understanding to control trade between Britain and Northern Ireland via a de facto border in the Irish Sea was the last remaining option. Johnson understood the implications when he signed on, though he refused to admit them publicly. Now that the protocol is under fire from the Democratic Unionist Party and hardline Brexiteers, Johnson, according to Whitehall insiders, thinks he can “wish for anything”.
The strategy – if that’s the right word for a decision to renege on the terms of an international treaty – is to do nothing. The government has rejected a proposal from Brussels that would remove the need for most checks by aligning UK food and veterinary standards with those of the EU. Instead, he will simply block, refusing to put in place agreed border controls.
More than that, the UK also offers to rip provisions which give EU institutions a role in monitoring trade across the Irish Sea. These were brokered by Lord David Frost, the current Brexit minister. The same Frost this week declared them an affront to British sovereignty.
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The official request is for a “halt” in the operation of the protocol while both sides prepare for further negotiations. I haven’t met anyone in Whitehall who thinks the EU will or could accept the new terms.
The calculation, however, is that by prolonging the process, the government will prevent the EU from insisting on the initial arrangements. In Johnson’s mind, it’s a box that can be thrown down the road. The longer it is in place, the harder it will be for Brussels to change the status quo.
Many Unionists in Northern Ireland are genuinely unnerved by a deal that makes trade with Britain more difficult while keeping the border open with the Republic. Their concern is that this will tip the economic balance in favor of nationalism.
In a province still defined by identity politics, the concern is understandable. This in turn places an obligation on the EU to be flexible and pragmatic and to keep customs controls to the minimum necessary to protect the single market.
Johnson, however, fueled the concern of trade unionists in order to put pressure on the EU. Respect the protocol, the implicit warning in Brussels runs, and you jeopardize the peace. Applied as it is to a province vulnerable to sectarian extremism, this tactic could politely be called playing with fire. A more stark appeal would be that it represents a sinister attempt at blackmail.
The Prime Minister is unimpressed by the Foreign Office’s fears that its hardline approach could disrupt relations with the United States. President Joe Biden is aware of his Irish heritage. And the White House has a significant interest in the Belfast agreement.
Johnson, insiders say, is indifferent. He has Churchillian pretensions. During his stint as foreign secretary a few years ago, diplomats reported that he spent time in front of the mirror mimicking the wartime leader’s ways. He’s not about to be pushed around by Biden.
There is depressing madness about all of this – just as there is about Downing Street’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government has made an offer which it knows the EU cannot accept. Even where it is inclined to be flexible, Brussels now has confirmation that the UK cannot be trusted to keep its word. The danger is that Northern Ireland will pay the price.
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Letter in response to this column:
The case was “ready for the oven”, but the shelves are now empty / By Michael Hufton, Managing Director, Ingage IR, London SW1, UK