BOri Johnson’s proposal to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol he signed in 2019 suggests he still has not come to terms with the implications of his red lines on Brexit. Mr Johnson’s illusions on the matter run deep. In October 2019, the Prime Minister repeatedly told MPs that there will be no control between Great Britain and Northern Ireland despite the impact assessment of his own government saying precisely the opposite. These hurdles, Mr Johnson well knew, would not be trivial, as buyers from Northern Ireland are now discovering. These are the foreseeable consequences of customs and regulatory discrepancies between the UK and the EU. The divergence required a border somewhere; additional bureaucracy has been built into the protocol.
Johnson needed a deal for political reasons ahead of the 2019 general election. Now he wants to throw it out because it’s bad for Britain. It has a lot to do with the behavior of its own government, which has often been lazy, surly and chaotic. What kept the show on the road were the grace periods, accepted by the EU, where the rules of the deal are not enforced. These are coming to an end. Without a breakthrough after months of closed-door talks, Mr Johnson decided to conduct negotiations with Brussels in public.
The result is a proposal for a new status quo on existing agreements, which, according to Lord Frost, the responsible minister, would allow negotiations without further cliffs and send a real signal of good intention. This would require generosity on the part of the EU for a fine-tuned deal with uncertain prospects. Such goodwill is hardly engendered by the British government dressing its demands in Brexiter tropes of interference from European courts and British honesty boxes. An ultimatum that London could unilaterally suspend parts of the Brexit deal doesn’t help much. The EU is unlikely to be intimidated by a smaller trading partner that faces retaliatory countermeasures. Threats only lower confidence.
There is a real problem here. Buyers in Northern Ireland say shipping goods online has become prohibitive. Supermarkets are warning there could be empty shelves in the area by Christmas. Manufacturers fear rules of origin barriers mean tariffs are applied to goods moving through Britain if resold in Northern Ireland. It’s no wonder, then, that post-Brexit trade rules have helped make some in the Unionist community feel like they are moving away from the UK. It is true that the Democratic Unionist Party, which is its third leader in as many months, has only to blame itself. The DUP works under the fantasy that the protocol can be deleted. It can’t. However, the violence on the streets has its roots in a real anger at what is going on. There is a danger in making people in Northern Ireland feel like pawns in a game of chess heading towards a desperate dead end.
The EU is a rules-based organization. He rightly wants to apply the protocol Mr Johnson negotiated, not the one he would have liked him to negotiate. European Commissioner Maro efovi strongly affirmed in response to Lord Frost that compliance with international legal obligations is of paramount importance. However, Brussels can find flexible and practical approaches to an imperfect arrangement. The same goes for the UK government. We have been here before. Last summer, Britain retreated into a food blockade with Brussels after having agreed to work transparently with the EU. What’s happening across the Irish Sea is a taste of things to come for buyers on the mainland: in January most produce will need full customs declarations when importing from the EU to Great Britain. Unless something is done, a rude wake-up call awaits UK voters who in many ways have yet to feel the cost of Mr Johnson’s Brexit.
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