Back to the past - again
James Harvey looks at the latest round in the Brexit saga and asks where it might all be heading
Last week saw just the latest twist in the continuing stand-off between the British government and the European Union over the so-called ‘Northern Ireland protocol’: that is, those sections in the withdrawal agreement, signed and sealed in 2020, that dealt with Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU.
Although the legal and constitutional complexities of the protocol are fast taking on all the tortuous entanglements of a modern-day ‘Schleswig-Holstein question’, in essence both the legal issues and the politics involved are actually quite simple. Attentive readers will recall that the protocol was designed to avert a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by keeping the six counties in the EU’s single market and customs union for goods, even though Great Britain is out of both. That meant that the economic and customs border was not ‘on the island of Ireland’, but was in the Irish Sea between the two parts of the United Kingdom.
A customs border will always result in increased paperwork and all kinds of checks on goods moving between territories, and so it has proved in this case. Increased veterinary checks and difficulties in ‘exporting’ Stilton cheese and Cumberland sausages from Britain to Northern Ireland, along with alleged shortages of more basic goods on supermarket shelves, have been just some of the problems highlighted by the media as a product of the protocol’s operation. As the year has gone on, politicians have picked up on these issues and the protocol has now become the latest battleground between London and the EU, with squabbles in Belfast also becoming increasingly important. So far, so rather predictable from all sides.
The Johnson government has kept up a chorus of complaints, saying that the protocol needs to be ‘renegotiated’ because of these impacts on Northern Ireland, whilst the EU has insisted that the British government agreed the deal, knowing what it contained, and must now stick to it. So, after a summer of manoeuvres and meetings, the European Commission on October 13 put forward a series of modifications and compromises that keep the protocol intact, but dealt with most of the outstanding issues relating to checks on chilled meats, medicines and other products destined solely for consumption in Northern Ireland.
In an earlier stage of the tortuous Brexit negotiations Johnson might have been satisfied with these concessions and would have boasted that he had secured a great victory: free and unimpeded passage for the Great British banger over the Irish Sea had been wrested from the Brussels’ bureaucrats! However, now the tone is a little different: he has got bigger fish to fry when it comes to this deal than worrying about the unrestricted movement of chilled meats and blue cheese.
Despite a cautious welcome from business groups, both in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the British government is not satisfied with the EU proposals. Indeed, it got its retaliation in first, the day before, when Britain’s chief negotiator with the EU, Lord Frost, placed a clear emphasis on asserting British sovereignty, when he repeated demands for a complete rewriting of the protocol, and the removal of the European Court of Justice from any function in implementing or adjudicating on it. Furthermore the noble lord has made strong hints that, should the impasse continue, then Britain might suspend the trading arrangements for Northern Ireland by invoking article 16 of the protocol, prompting fears of a wider trade war with the EU.
The response from the EU has been as expected. It has made all the changes that it can, and no more concessions are on offer: the ECJ’s role must stay, and the basis of the protocol must remain intact. Indeed, as the tension ratchets up, there are reports that some of the bigger players in the EU, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, are urging the commission to “put the bloc on standby for a trade war with Britain”.1 Cue further stalemate and still more meetings, negotiations and “intensive Northern Ireland Brexit talks” to come in Brussels and London, to deal with “the substantial gap” that still remains.2 As The Economist archly noted, looking ahead to the forthcoming round of negotiations, “This winter may be frosty.”3
No-one can really be surprised by this turn of events, least of all Boris Johnson and David Frost. After all, they negotiated the original Brexit deal, and they knew perfectly well what was in it and how it had to be implemented. So this ‘crisis’ did not come out of the blue: if its underlying causes arose from the Johnson government’s electoral imperative to “get Brexit done” (never mind the mere detail of an “impossible border” in the Irish Sea), the timing of this latest round and how it might pan out clearly arises from current political dynamics in London and Brussels.4
The potential benefits of triggering a conflict for the British government are obvious: in the midst of political problems at home involving shortages and supply chain issues, rising inflation, a looming NHS winter crisis, along with a difficult budget and public spending round, directing attention away to yet another spat with Brussels could prove to be a useful distraction for the Tories. Many in the EU suspect that something of this sort had always been Johnson’s strategy and that he never had any real intention of honouring the terms of the withdrawal agreement.5
However, whether the nuclear option of using article 16 and prompting certain retaliation by the EU is the course the government will choose still remains unclear and - in the short term at least - not really very likely. Given the current balance of economic forces between the EU and Britain, the uncertain political and economic ramifications across the island of Ireland that might result, and the pending trade deals that Britain is trying to reach internationally in the wake of Brexit, a trade war and a crisis of this character is not in the interests of either British capitalism or the Johnson government.
The concessions made by the EU show that they too are unlikely to easily get drawn into a trade war and related retaliations. However, defending the single market, which is at the heart of their project, is what the protocol is really about, whatever anyone says about preserving peace and protecting the Good Friday agreement. If this is threatened in any way - and triggering article 16 could do that, unless a hard border is imposed, either in Ireland or, in an even more unlikely case, between Ireland and other member-states - the EU will be forced to act simply to preserve its current form. Moreover, the EU has its own internal issues that make defending the single market and the protocol an important imperative for the commission and the leading member-states, such as Germany and France.
The current tensions between Poland and the dominant powers within the EU makes it vital that the status quo is upheld: the EU cannot be seen to back down in the face of a challenge from Britain - or from Poland. The internal contradictions within the EU structures and the balance of power ensure that crises of this type will recur: these dynamics and these tensions are built into the ‘union’ and cannot be simply wished away by either warm words or firm rulings by the commission. That is a point not lost on the Johnson government and the dominant Brexit wing of the Tories: they are looking for allies in Europe and hope to exploit both the protocol and the Polish crisis to further weaken and even eventually break up the EU.6
Events in Belfast have also taken the expected turn, with nationalist parties Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, as well as the Alliance, giving the EU compromise a welcome, whilst the unionist parties were sceptical in varying degrees. Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson reaffirmed its total opposition to the protocol as an “affront” to the union and British sovereignty, and demanded that it be completely scrapped. With rivals in the Traditional Unionist Voice on the right taking an even harder line and the Ulster Unionist Party pitching their appeal to the centre ground, the DUP has increasingly felt the squeeze. Opinion polls suggest that it could be weakened in next year’s assembly elections by losing voters to both its right and left as a result of its stance on Brexit.7
Last week we saw the basic template for what could be a whole series of post-Brexit crises, but, as they unfold and work though the political and economic structures of Britain, Northern Ireland and the EU, we can expect to see still further twists, turns and variations on these basic themes.
spectator.co.uk/article/the-eu-s-rule-of-law-crisis-lets-britain-change-the-brexit-deal; see also www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/10/20/polands-intelligent-brexit-means-can-have-cake-eat.↩︎