LONDONR First came the shortages on supermarket shelves. Then the sausage fights over the supply of cold meat. Now, the rift over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland is threatening to become a full-scale confrontation between Britain and the European Union and one that could worry the United States as well.
On Wednesday, Britain said a Brexit treaty on Northern Ireland, negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and dubbed the Northern Ireland Protocol, could create so many problems that it could have to be abandoned if it could not be rewritten. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, said would seek creative solutions but would not renegotiate the deal.
To Mr Johnson’s critics, the latest statement is evidence of his lack of credibility, his willingness to break international commitments and his denial of responsibility for the consequences of the European withdrawal he backed. Mr Johnsons’s allies accuse the European Union of flexibility in enforcing the rules, a pettifogging lack of sensitivity to sentiment in parts of Northern Ireland and vengeful hostility towards Britain for leaving the bloc.
Behind all the scams lies the fear of the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland, and this raises stakes beyond those of typical trade disputes. President Biden, who often talks about his Irish heritage, has already warned Mr Johnson of doing nothing to undermine the Good Friday Agreement that helped end the violence.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
It is fair to say that no matter how spiral the name is, this dry legal text will not be found on most people’s summer beach lists.
The protocol aims to resolve one of the most difficult issues raised by Brexit: what to do about the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the European Union.
This border is disputed and parts of it were fortified during decades of violence known as the Problems, but after a peace agreement in the late 1990s, those visible signs of division have fused along the open border. No one wants the checkpoints back, but as part of his Brexit plan, Mr. Johnson insisted on leaving Europe’s customs union and its single market, which allows goods to flow freely across European borders without controls.
The protocol sets out a plan to deal with this unique situation. It does so by effectively leaving Northern Ireland half within the European system and half within the British system. It seems logical, even when you try to make it work.
Why does he not like Britain?
The plan implies more controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, effectively creating a border below the Irish Sea and dividing the UK. In the face of all the new bureaucracy, some British companies have stopped supplying stores in Northern Ireland, saying they simply could not handle the extra paperwork they now need.
This has angered some Conservative lawmakers and sparked sentiment among those in Northern Ireland who want the region to remain part of the UK. Unionists, mostly Protestants, identify as British and believe the changes could threaten their future in the UK.
So while being able to get the right kind of sausage may seem like a small inconvenience, to many unionists, it feels like their British identity is what is in the pan.
Why is the EU insisting on it?
The bloc has dug in the foot, in part because not only did Mr Johnson sign the protocol, but he also negotiated it himself and pushed it through the British Parliament.
British critics accuse Europeans of being too rigorous and legalistic in their interpretation of the protocol and of being too jealous of the controls required.
But EU leaders believe the bloc’s existential interests are being jeopardized. For Brussels, the single market is one of its cornerstones. If this is undermined, it could threaten the building blocks of European integration.
What about those sausages?
According to the protocol, foods of animal origin yes, like sausage coming from the UK to Northern Ireland need health certification to make sure they meet European standards if they end up in Ireland, which, of course, is still part of the market unique of the European Union.
The British want a light touch system, a system in which there are minimal controls on goods that companies promise will stay in Northern Ireland.
But the European Union wants Britain to enroll in Europe’s health certification rules to minimize the need for controls. So far many of the regulations have been waived during a pardon period, but that is scheduled to end later this year.
What would happen if Britain withdrew from the protocol?
Britain says it already has reason to impose an emergency clause known as Article 16 that allows it to act unilaterally, allowing it to suspend parts of the protocol. He does not plan to do so at the moment, but the option remains on the table.
If Britain does, the European side will most likely accuse Mr. Johnson for breaking a treaty. This could lead to revenge and even a trade war between Britain and the European Union.
Is all this just a negotiation tactic?
During the endless Brexit talks, Mr. Johnson often played with the Europeans, sometimes relying on a so-called crazy strategy and threatening to get off the block without any deal at all.
So this may be just a list of negotiating dice, and most analysts believe that, for the British, the best outcome would be to win concessions on the protocol from Brussels.
But isn’t it dangerous?
Yes because, after all, Mr Johnson has no real alternative to the protocol, for a while to remove it and dare the Republic of Ireland to revive the Irish border. This could spark sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, provoke a trade war with Brussels and increase tensions with the Biden administration.
Leaving aside the influence in Northern Ireland, this would not be an ideal backdrop for United Nations Conference on Climate Change Mr Johnson will host in Glasgow later this year a moment when he will need international allies.
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