On Wednesday 21 July, the UK reignited the post-Brexit dispute with the European Union by calling for a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK government demanded that the protocol be temporarily suspended. The UK and EU “cannot go on as we are” when it comes to Northern Ireland, Britain’s Cabinet Office Minister David Frost said. This comes after the two sides had signed a post-Brexit deal one year ago, which was then presented as a victory by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Northern Ireland protocol aims to ensure that there is no new hard border on the island of Ireland that would jeopardise the fragile peace in the former civil war country. At the same time, it aims to protect the EU’s internal market from uncontrolled imports from the UK by effectively moving the customs border to the Irish Sea.
Brexit Minister Frost demanded: “We must quickly agree on a moratorium.” Renegotiations are needed to bring the Northern Ireland Protocol into a “new equilibrium”. A temporary suspension of the arrangements would allow “the problems to be tackled as a whole” and not plunge from one crisis to the next, added Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The UK government could activate Article 16 of the Protocol in these circumstances, said Lewis. However, Frost announced that the UK government does not want an escalation and will not unilaterally breach the deal. He hoped that a compromise could be found at the negotiating table. On Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson even picked up the phone and spoke first with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, then with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The success was limited. The rejection from Brussels came quickly. EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic declared that a “renegotiation” was out of the question. However, he stated that the EU is prepared to continue the dialogue and is open to finding “creative solutions” as long as they are within the Northern Ireland protocol. Sefcovic also reminded them that the British Parliament had ratified the hard-won settlement.
There are several reasons for the EU’s rejection. Firstly, the sheer scale of the British demands, which go beyond the mandate given by the Member States to the EU Commission. They want to end all customs controls on imports from Britain into Northern Ireland, new penalties for traders who do not play by the rules and take away the responsibility of enforcing the Northern Ireland Protocol from the EU institutions, in particular from the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In addition to that, the EU looks at Johnson with distrust. Although the British negotiators claim that the Northern Ireland Protocol would work if the EU would only meet the demands of the UK government, the EU feels that the UK strategy could undermine the agreement over time.
In Parliament and amongst Member States, the reactions to the British demands were also unanimous. “It was crystal clear that the Northern Ireland Protocol would involve customs controls in the Irish Sea. Instead of standing by his own policy and abiding by international treaties, Frost’s proposals now add populist fuel to the fire that is burning in Northern Ireland”, said Anna Cavazzini, Green MEP and Chair of the Internal Market Committee.
Sebastian Fischer, the spokesman of the German permanent representation in Brussels, asked: “Is it too much to expect the UK to stand by what it has negotiated, signed and ratified?”. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said, “we will continue to encourage the UK to work in partnership with the EU to find realistic solutions in a spirit of positive and constructive cooperation”. The EU also received support from Washington. Britain must remain within the “existing mechanisms”, said a US State Department spokesperson. US President Joe Biden had already told his host Johnson this at the G7 summit.
It remains to be seen how things will progress. Further talks are likely in whatever form. But if one side terminates the treaty, the other side is expected to take compensatory measures. These could be punitive tariffs on British products, for example. However, Johnson would likely want to avoid such a trade war with the EU.
Compliments of Vulcan Consulting – a member of the EACCNY.