Britain and the EU are closing in on a trade war against Northern Ireland


Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said Mr Johnson’s decision was “a new low point”, but his deputy, Leo Varadkar, noted “a big difference between the proposed legislation and the legislation being passed and then it is actually used”.

The shadow of a possible trade war, even years from now, will hang over a UK economy that has contracted over the past two months. The OECD says that next year Britain will suffer the worst economic performance of any G20 country except Russia.

A game of chicken

The maneuvers and threats from both sides are in part an attempt to raise the stakes and force the other side to blink, in a slow-motion game of chicken.

Mr Johnson’s government hopes the legislation will be enough to prompt the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, which favors strong ties between the province and Britain, to lift its veto over the running of government and the Northern Ireland Parliament.

He also hopes the law will make the EU realize that Britain is determined to extract further concessions from the 27-member bloc.

In the deal which came into force in January 2021, Mr Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland should remain in the EU’s single market, to avoid jeopardizing a fragile peace with a potentially explosive land border.

But that inexorably meant there should be a maritime customs border between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland – an outcome Mr Johnson accepted on paper but never accepted politically.


Both sides have been trying to find a mutually agreeable way to make this inner UK border work, so that it doesn’t get in the way of intra-British trade.

The EU proposal is to cut most customs and red tape for UK goods bound for Northern Ireland, but Brussels still retains a watchdog and enforcement role.

Britain wants a customs-free ‘green lane’ for British goods destined for Northern Ireland, and a ‘red lane’ for goods going from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Johnson’s legislation also removes the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which the EU considers part of its single market, and also reserves the right to make other changes unilaterally.

The UK government says it must fix the system because anger from the DUP and other Unionist parties is threatening the peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement, which the warring Unionists and Republicans signed in 1998.

But even if Mr Johnson’s approach appeases Unionists – and they are not yet satisfied – he has raised the ire of Republican parties such as Sinn Fein and the centrist Alliance party, which together have a majority of Northeast MPs. Irish after the recent parliamentary elections.

They wrote Mr Johnson an excoriating letter on Monday, noting that a majority of Northern Irish voters had also rejected Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

The Johnson government has also argued that Northern Irish businesses are suffering under the current arrangements. But Northern Ireland’s economy is one of only two regional economies in the UK, along with London, to have recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

“The unilateral reform process begun today is not at our request, but we remain firmly convinced that an agreed way forward can be found. Anything other than a negotiated outcome is simply sub-optimal,” Stuart Anderson, public affairs officer for the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.

The legislation was reportedly toughened last week, after Mr Johnson changed course following a no-confidence vote which he won by a narrower margin than expected.

The Brexiteer Tory group of MPs took advantage of his weakness to get him to support their figurehead, Foreign Secretary and aspiring leadership Liz Truss, more firmly.


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