UK to EU: We want a do-over on Brexit's Northern Ireland protocol

Jonathan Buckmaster/Pool Photo via AP

I bet they do. Boris Johnson ended up selling out his Tory/DUP base in Northern Ireland in the end to get an agreement of the final dissolution between the European Union and United Kingdom. Ireland and the EU refused to set up a hard border for trade on the Irish island that would have violated the Good Friday Agreement, and Johnson was forced to accept a trade border in the Irish Sea instead that left Northern Ireland within the EU’s trade region.


That produced the kind of unrest that both sides of the Brexit issue predicted, with unionists increasingly unhappy about being abandoned by Westminster. With Johnson under increasing political pressure to stand up to the EU, his government warned that the EU has to immediately agree to an overhaul of the Brexit divorce terms, complaining that the trade situation is damaging the “fabric” of the UK:

The government has promised to push the EU to change the way trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland works, arguing the current situation is damaging the UK’s “fabric”.

The Northern Ireland Protocol helps prevent the need for checks on the island of Ireland’s internal border.

But minister Lord Frost said the full deal should not be implemented, as it risked unrest and damage to business.

He urged the EU to change its stance, saying: “We cannot go on as we are.”

However, he announced the UK would not be triggering Article 16 of the protocol – which would allow it to suspend parts of the Brexit deal – before talks with Brussels.

He added that it was “clear that the circumstances exist to justify” its use, saying: “Nevertheless, we have concluded that it is not the right moment to do so.”

Color me stunned that Johnson’s agreement to sunder Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK on trade might have done a little damage to the kingdom’s “fabric.” Johnson went into Brexit and the final agreement with his eyes wide open on this point. The UK has treaty obligations (the Good Friday Agreement) to prevent a hard border from being erected in Ireland for either trade or travel, a point made much easier when both the UK and the Republic of Ireland belonged to the EU. The UK chose to pursue its own customs regime rather than remain in the EU’s, which meant that their retention of the Ulster enclave was always going to present a serious problem.


The predicted and predictable economic and political consequences unfolding from Johnson’s agreement hardly amounts to an emergency, in other words. That’s precisely what the EU told the UK in response to a demand for immediate renegotiation:

The European Commission will seek “creative solutions” to difficulties in trade between Britain and Northern Ireland caused by Brexit, but will not renegotiate the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said. …

“We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today,” Sefcovic said in a statement.

“We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the Protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the Protocol,” he said.

The Northern Ireland protocol, backed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was part of the settlement that finally sealed Britain’s sometimes bitter divorce from the bloc, four years after Britons voted to leave in a referendum.

It established border controls between Britain and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the EU customs area.

“The Protocol … is the joint solution that the EU found with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Lord David Frost – and was ratified by the UK Parliament – to address the unique challenges that Brexit, and the type of Brexit chosen by the British government, poses for the island of Ireland,” Sefcovic said.


So what precisely is the emergency, other than Johnson getting burned by his own agreement — which he personally negotiated? Sausages, but that’s just the appetizer. Nationalism is the meal:

Faced with all the new bureaucracy, some British companies have stopped supplying stores in Northern Ireland, saying they simply can’t handle the added paperwork now needed.

This has enraged some Conservative lawmakers and inflamed sentiment among those in Northern Ireland who want the region to remain part of the United Kingdom. The unionists, mostly Protestants, identify as British and believe the changes could threaten their future in the United Kingdom.

So while not being able to get the right kind of sausages might seem like a small inconvenience, to many unionists, it feels as if their British identity is what’s in the fryer. …

Under the protocol, foods with animal origins — yes, like sausage — coming from mainland Britain into Northern Ireland need health certification to ensure they meet European standards should they end up in Ireland, which, of course, is still part of the European Union’s single market.

The British want a light-touch system — that is, one in which there are minimal checks — on goods that companies promise will stay in Northern Ireland.

But the European Union wants Britain to sign up to Europe’s health certification rules to minimize the need for controls. So far many of the regulations have been waived during a “grace period,” but that is scheduled to end later this year.


Not to beat a dead horse, but this was an issue which had been well known in the years between the Brexit initiative and Johnson’s final exit deal. The problem isn’t that the EU is playing hardball so much as it is that Johnson used a soft sell with his constituents on what it would mean in terms of bureaucratic headaches. Ever since, the extent to which Northern Ireland has been cut adrift from the rest of the UK has become more apparent, which has created the identity crisis noted by the New York Times.

This isn’t necessarily a dead end, but Johnson’s the one in a tight spot. There is at least some room for negotiation here on paperwork and inspections necessary to ensure no back-door leaks into the EU of unregulated goods, but it’s pretty narrow and now entirely on Johnson. After all, this is his agreement. Any failure resulting from it falls on Johnson’s shoulders, not the EU’s, and more importantly on the shoulders of his allies in Northern Ireland in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP has become an absolute trainwreck since the heady days when it held Theresa May’s career in its hands. Combine that up with the unionists’ “sense of lost supremacy” in the wake of Brexit, and Johnson has a very explosive situation on his hands. And don’t forget … Scotland’s watching all of this very, very carefully as well.


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