Boris Johnson’s Government has new proposals for post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland. The message to the EU is clear enough. The Prime Minister has no intention of honoring the solemn commitments in the Irish protocol.
Not long ago, he described the deal he made with Brussels as “brilliant.” Now he denies it. The signal to the rest of the world? Britain’s signature on international treaties is virtually worthless.
To be clear, there can be no magic solution of the argument raging between London and Brussels over the functioning of new trade agreements between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The imperative in the Brexit deal was to maintain the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic at the heart of the 1998 Belfast peace agreement. The EU’s legitimate interest was to preserve the integrity of its internal market by ensuring that Northern Ireland did not become a back door for illicit trade. Johnson’s insistence that the UK leave the single market and customs union precluded any possibility of a decent response.
The protocol agreement to control trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland through an actual border in the Irish Sea was the last remaining option. Johnson understood the implications when he signed, even though he declined to admit them publicly. With protocol under fire from the Democratic Unionist Party and hardline Tory Brexiters, Johnson thinks, Whitehall insiders say, he can “wish it all away”.
The strategy – if that’s the right word for a decision not to act on the terms of an international treaty – is to do nothing. The government has rejected a proposal from Brussels that would make most controls redundant by aligning UK food and veterinary standards with those of the EU. Instead, it will simply grind to a halt and refuse to put in place agreed border controls.
More than that, the UK also proposes to tear up the provisions assigning a role to EU institutions in monitoring trade across the Irish Sea. These were negotiated by Lord David Frost, the current Brexit minister. The same Frost stated this week that they were an affront to British sovereignty.
The official request is for a “stall” in the functioning of the protocol as both sides prepare for new negotiations. I have not met anyone in Whitehall who believes that the EU will or could accept the new terms.
However, the calculation is that by drawing up the process, the government will make it impossible for the EU to stick to the original agreements. According to Johnson, this is a can that can be kicked across the road. The longer it is in place, the harder Brussels will find it to change the status quo.
Many Northern Ireland trade unionists are genuinely concerned about an agreement that would make trade with Britain more difficult while maintaining the open border with the Republic. Their concern is that this will tip the economic equilibrium in favor of nationalism.
In a province that is still characterized by identity politics, the concern is understandable. This in turn obliges the EU to be flexible and pragmatic and to keep customs controls to the minimum necessary to protect the internal market.
However, Johnson has added fuel to the unrest among unions to put pressure on the EU. Stick to protocol, the implicit warning to Brussels is running and you endanger the peace. Applied to a province vulnerable to sectarian extremism, this tactic could politely be described as playing with fire. A more blunt call would be that it is a sinister attempt at blackmail.
The prime minister is unimpressed by the State Department’s concern that its crackdown will disrupt relations with the US. President Joe Biden is aware of his Irish heritage. And the White House has a significant stake in the Belfast Agreement.
Johnson is not worried, insiders say. He has Churchillian pretensions. During his stint as Secretary of State a few years ago, diplomats reported that he would spend time in front of the mirror mimicking the war leader’s mannerisms. He has no intention of being pushed by Biden.
There’s a depressing frenzy about all this – just as there is about Downing Street’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government has made an offer that it knows the EU cannot accept. Even where it tends to be flexible, Brussels now has confirmation that the UK cannot be trusted to keep its word. The danger is that Northern Ireland will pay the price.