LONDON – The battle for the status of Northern Ireland has been Brexit’s most ardent legacy for months, even sparking a conflict known as “sausage war. Now Britain has increased the ante by demanding that afterBrexit business rules for Northern Ireland that it agreed two years ago scrapped and replaced.
The European Union responded to Wednesday’s call with a far-reaching plan to resolve the practical problems arising from this Brexit Treaty – the Northern Ireland Protocol – which sparked a major confrontation between Britain and the bloc. It’s a spit that could upset the United States.
The protocol aims to solve one of the most complex problems that Brexit has created: what to do with it border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the European Union.
Under a new proposal from Brussels, controls on food and animal products from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland would be reduced by 80 per cent, customs paperwork for many goods would be reduced and the flow of medicines would be ensured.
“Today’s package has the potential to make a real and tangible difference in practice,” said Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission, the executive body of the 27-member bloc, adding that it was an “alternative model for implementing the protocol.”
But he offered no concession Britain on Tuesday called for a completely new agreement that would remove any role for the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s supreme court, as an arbitrator in disputes. Brussels has already rejected this idea.
For Mr Johnson’s critics, the rift of the protocol is a testament to his lack of credibility, his willingness to violate international obligations and his refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of his withdrawal from Europe. Mr Johnson’s allies accuse the European Union of inflexibility in applying the rules, which is a low sensitivity to feelings in parts of Northern Ireland and vengeful hostility to Britain for leaving the bloc.
Behind all that indifferent lie are fears of the fragility of the Northern Peace of Ireland which increase bets beyond typical commercial disputes. President Biden, who often talks about his Irish heritage, has already warned Mr Johnson not to do anything that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement, which helped end the violence.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
It is fair to say that although harmony sounds like the name of a spy thriller, it is in fact a dry legal text that is not on most people’s holiday reading lists.
The border between Northern Ireland, which remains in the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which is in the European Union, is questionable, and parts of it have been fortified during decades of violence known as ‘The Troubles’. But after the peace agreement on Good Friday in 1998, these visible signs of division vanished along the open border. No one wants back control points, but as part of his Brexit plan, Mr Johnson insisted on leaving the European Customs Union and its single market, which allows goods to flow freely across European borders without controls.
The protocol sets out a plan to address this unique situation. It does so by effectively leaving Northern Ireland half within the European system (and its huge market) and half within the British one. It sounds neat – logically, 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 borders in the Irish Sea and dividing the United Kingdom. In the face of all the new bureaucracy, some British companies have stopped supplying businesses in Northern Ireland with the fact that they simply cannot handle the paperwork they now need.
This has infuriated some conservative lawmakers and ardent moods among those in Northern Ireland who want the region to remain part of the United Kingdom. Trade unionists, mostly Protestants, identify as British and believe the changes could jeopardize their future in the United Kingdom.
So while it may seem to many trade unionists that they will not get the right kind of sausage as a minor inconvenience, it seems as if their British identity is in the fryer.
Why does the EU insist?
The bloc was buried, partly 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 interpreting the protocol and of being overzealous of the controls required.
However, EU leaders believe that the bloc’s existential interests are at stake. For Brussels, the single market is one of its cornerstones and he says he needs to control what enters it. Undermining this could jeopardize the building blocks of European integration.
What about the sausages?
According to the protocol, foodstuffs of animal origin – yes, such as sausages – originating in mainland Britain to Northern Ireland need health certification to ensure that they meet European standards if they end up in Ireland, which is still part of the European Union’s single market.
The British want a light touch system – one that has minimal checks – on goods that companies promise to stay in Northern Ireland.
However, the European Union wants Britain to sign European health certification rules to minimize the need for controls. So far, many regulations have been dropped during the “standstill period” and, if adopted, the latest proposals from Brussels should emerge from the “sausage wars”.
What would happen if Britain withdrew from the protocol?
Britain says it already has reasons to introduce an emergency clause known as Article 16, which allows it to act unilaterally, which effectively allows it to suspend parts of the protocol. He has no plans at the moment, but the possibility remains on the table.
If Britain does, the European side would most likely accuse Mr Johnson of breaking the treaty. This could lead to retaliation and a possible trade war between Britain and the European Union.
Is it all just a negotiating tactic?
That is likely.
During endless talks about Brexit, Mr. Johnson often played hard with Europeans, sometimes relying on a so-called crazy strategy and threatening to leave the block without any agreement.
So it can only be another roll of the bargaining dice, and most analysts believe that getting the concessions to the protocol from Brussels will be the best result for the British.
The European Commission’s response was to talk to businesses and other groups in Northern Ireland and focus on solving their practical problems. He hopes the concessions offered on Wednesday will satisfy business groups in Northern Ireland, if not all of the government’s demands in London. However, Brussels has limited room for maneuver if Britain does enforce its demand to change the role of the European Court of Justice in resolving disputes.
So isn’t it risky?
Yes, because, in the end, Mr Johnson has no real alternative to a protocol that would shorten it and dare to resurrect the Irish border. It could ignite sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, provoke a trade war with Brussels and increase tensions with the Biden administration.
Monika Pronczuk contributed news from Brussels