UK-EU Brexit last line unchecked – POLITICO


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LONDON, DUBLIN and BRUSSELS – Meet the new Brexit row, identical to the old Brexit row.

Britain and the European Union are once again heading for a stalemate over post-Brexit trade rules governed by the Northern Ireland Protocol. Here’s everything you need to know about how we got here and what might happen next.

Why are they fighting this time?

After more than a year of talks with the EU, the UK is threatening to go it alone and settle disputed parts of a post-Brexit deal governing trade across the Irish Sea, known as the of Protocol of Northern Ireland.

A promise of UK domestic legislation giving ministers the power to override parts of the protocol is due on Tuesday – and will most likely spark further anger in Brussels and Washington.

Excuse me, what is Northern Ireland protocol already?

Agreed as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in 2019, the protocol was drawn up to protect the EU’s single market after Britain left in January 2021.

UK and EU negotiators agreed that it would be too difficult, for economic and security reasons, to apply EU trade rules at the land border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK , and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU.

Instead, EU customs and health checks would be applied to UK goods on arrival at ports in Northern Ireland, which would continue to be part of the EU’s single market for goods.

The arrangement offered two major advantages: controls would be predominantly in one direction, whereas enforcement at the Irish border would have required controls on shipments in both directions; and Northern Ireland producers would gain a unique ability to export unfettered to both the UK and EU, a potential outlet for foreign investment.

So what’s not to like?

Plenty, if you’re a hard-line trade unionist committed to maintaining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and hostile to closer relations with the Republic of Ireland.

The creation of checks on goods from Britain, while keeping such trade to and from the south of Ireland without barriers, was always going to confuse trade unionists feeling that the protocol tipped the balance of business towards Irish unity and away from the UK “mainland”. “Irish nationalists, who overwhelmingly opposed Brexit, accepted the protocol for the same reason.

It didn’t help that protocol enforcement got off to a terrible start. UK authorities, flirting with the risk of a no-deal Brexit until a Christmas Eve deal, barely announced new post-Brexit rules in time for New Year’s Eve. Shippers in England had to facing months of confusion trying to figure out the new paperwork and disjointed IT systems, prompting many to dump Northern Irish customers as not worth the trouble.

Haven’t the British authorities addressed the protocol issues?

While computer systems and training have improved, political scrutiny has sabotaged efforts. The main pro-British party, the Democratic Unionists, have launched a campaign to undermine port controls, using their positions in the Northern Ireland government to block the construction of permanent border posts and the hiring of inspectors and vets needed.

Facing growing threats of unionist street violence, the UK unilaterally postponed the introduction of additional checks and restrictions until March 2021 and extended these “grace periods”, with the reluctant agreement of the EU, over the past year.

This means that the rules of protocol are today more honored in violation than in observance.

Weren’t the EU-UK talks meant to resolve all of this?

Yes, and to be fair, both parties have tried to come up with ideas to make the setup work better.

The UK published its plan for change in July 2021, and the European Commission’s own package followed in October – but the gap is still wide.

Many of the changes proposed by Britain fall outside the mandate for talks that European leaders gave Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission’s Brexit spokesman. The UK has therefore repeatedly called for this to be expanded. There’s no appetite for it in the block.

The Commission recognizes that the current operation of the protocol poses certain problems, but believes that these can still be resolved if the UK shows the political will. Brussels is refusing to change the text of the deal so soon after it became international law – while the UK says the EU’s proposals are much better on paper than in reality.

Britain has also advanced new reasons for protocol changes in recent weeks, saying Northern Ireland must be able to benefit from the same tax breaks the government can offer other UK citizens amid cost-cutting of life.

European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič shakes hands with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss before a meeting on the Northern Ireland protocol in February 2022 | Rob Pinney/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

So what’s the UK’s big idea?

We will find out on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Liz Truss will flesh out the government’s latest plan in a statement from the House of Commons. She is set to promise nationwide legislation giving ministers the power to override parts of the protocol – but the bill itself looks unlikely to come to parliament before late spring and could take up to one year to become law.

The UK is hoping its strategy will buy more time to change the dial with Brussels and ultimately prevent it from having to follow through on action that could trigger a trade war and a backlash from Washington. “He’s a typical Johnsonian who takes a cake and eats it,” an EU official said.

What about article 16?

Brussels has been debating for weeks whether the UK will also trigger Article 16, the deal’s backstop mechanism envisaged for situations where either side feels the provisions are causing problems, but that now seems unlikely. likely.

Shanker Singham, a trade consultant and former UK Brexit adviser, said Article 16 had become “a bit of a duck” and he does not expect UK ministers to trigger it. “It’s not a process that was designed to be used, because it’s a very cumbersome process,” he said.

How is the EU likely to react?

The EU keeps its cards close to its chest as it projects unity. But EU diplomats warn that the bloc will not hesitate to take swift countermeasures if Westminster actually decides to go through with its plan. “They are playing with fire,” an EU diplomat said of the UK. “And you don’t have to be surprised if you get burned in the fire.”

Perhaps the simplest scenario would be legal action. The Brexit deal gives the EU Commission and Court of Justice the power to initiate infringement proceedings for breaches of EU law in Northern Ireland. However, Brussels could only sue London once the law is in place, which could take months.

A more drastic option would be to scrap the entire post-Brexit trade-smoothing deal between the UK and the EU – but the appetite for it is quite weak in Brussels. “There’s not much urge to have another navel-gazing battle with the UK over something that’s driven primarily by domestic politics rather than finding solutions,” one diplomat said.

Asked if she had prepared different scenarios, Commission spokeswoman Arianna Podesta said: “Our call on the UK side to sit down with us and commit to the flexibilities that the EU defined in October remains valid, as it would be a better course of action than unilateral action”.

The issue has not been officially discussed between EU countries and the Commission, several diplomats told POLITICO – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t talked about in the halls of power.

Will European unity hold?

Maybe. But a diplomat from an EU country said he recognized the war in Ukraine had made it harder for EU countries to come up with a coordinated response, in part because the bloc wanted to maintain good relations working with Britain on the conflict. Nor would a trade war with a close neighbor exactly reduce the soaring cost of living.

However, two other diplomats warned it would be a miscalculation for the UK to bet on a softer response because of the war.

What about British unity?

Although no UK minister has publicly criticized Britain’s plan to go solo, it has been widely reported that some Cabinet members harbor apprehensions.

A person familiar with the talks said UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak was worried about deteriorating EU ties and trade returns, while Housing Secretary Michael Gove would prefer to allow talks to continue for a while longer . There is, however, an inter-Cabinet consensus on the need for changes, said a second British official.

One final twist: A senior Johnson ally told The Sunday Times over the weekend that the prime minister ‘doesn’t want a war with the EU’ and that Truss and others fear he is being too enthusiastic.

What does Washington say about all this?

Democrats backing Ireland – let alone business – in the US aren’t exactly keen on a unilateral British move.

Garrett Workman, senior director for European affairs at the US-UK Business Council, thinks a response from the Biden administration could get serious and go beyond simply canceling the new trade dialogues that London and Washington have started in recent years. month. “Just cutting off these budding commercial dialogues doesn’t really seem to move the needle. So there might be pressure to do more than that.

Democratic Congressman Bill Keating, chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, Environment and Cybersecurity, told POLITICO on Monday that if the UK follows through on its plan for legislation, it would “would lead to a potential free trade agreement with the United States that would go nowhere” and be a “step backwards in terms of trade relations”. Buckle up.

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting

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