LONDON — For months, fighting over the situation in Northern Ireland has been Brexit’s toughest legacy, even in a conflict known as the “Sausage War”. Now, Britain has intensified demands for post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland that it agreed upon two years ago and replace them.
The European Union answered that call on Wednesday with a far-reaching plan to address the practical problems raised by the Brexit treaty – the Northern Ireland Protocol – that provoked a full-scale confrontation between Britain and the bloc. It’s a dispute that could upset the United States.
The protocol aims to address one of the most complex issues created by Brexit: what to do about the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the European Union.
According to a new proposal from Brussels, checks on food and animal products going from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland will be reduced by 80 percent, customs paperwork for shipments of multiple goods will be reduced and the flow of medicines will be ensured .
“Today’s package has the potential to make a real, tangible difference on the ground,” said Maros Sefkovic, vice-chairman of the European Commission, the executive body of the 27-nation bloc. protocol.”
But he made no concessions to Britain’s demand on Tuesday for an entirely new agreement that would remove any role for the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s top court, as arbitrator in disputes. That idea had already been rejected by Brussels.
For Mr Johnson’s critics, the crackdown on the protocol is evidence of his lack of credibility, his willingness to break international commitments and his refusal of responsibility for the consequences of the withdrawal from Europe championed by him. Mr Johnson’s aides accuse the EU of inflexibility in enforcing the rules, a lack of sensitivity to sentiments in parts of Northern Ireland and vengeful hostility towards Britain for its exit from the bloc.
Behind all the turmoil are fears about the fragility of Northern Ireland’s peace that raise the stakes beyond typical trade disputes. President Biden, who frequently talks about his Irish heritage, has already warned Mr Johnson not to do anything to undermine the Good Friday agreement that helped end the violence.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
It’s fair to say that while The Compromise sounds like the title of an espionage thriller, it’s actually a dry legal text that won’t be found on most people’s holiday reading lists.
The border between Northern Ireland, which remains in the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which is in the European Union, has been contested, and parts of it have been fortified during decades of violence known as “The Troubles”. Was. But after the Good Friday peace deal in 1998, those visible signs of division have melted away at the open border. No one wants the checkpoint 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 checks. allows to do.
The protocol sets out a plan to deal with this unique situation. This effectively leaves Northern Ireland half inside the European system (and its vast market), and half inside the British. It sounds neat – logical, even – until you try to make it work.
Why doesn’t Britain like it?
The plan meant more checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, effectively creating a border under the Irish Sea and dividing the United Kingdom. Faced with all the new bureaucracy, some British companies have stopped supplying stores in Northern Ireland, saying they can no longer handle the extra paperwork needed.
This has angered some Conservative MPs and stirred sentiment among those in Northern Ireland who want the region to remain part of the United Kingdom. Unionists, mostly Protestants, identify as British and believe that the changes could jeopardize their future in the United Kingdom.
So while not being able to find the right kind of sausage may seem like a minor inconvenience, for many unionists, it feels like they have a British identity in the fryer.
Why is the EU insisting on this?
The bloc has dug in its heels, partly because Mr Johnson signed the protocol, but also because he himself negotiated it and pushed it through the British parliament.
British critics accused Europeans of being overly rigid and legal in their interpretation of the protocol, and of being overzealous about the necessary investigation.
But EU leaders believe the bloc’s survival interests are being jeopardized. For Brussels, the Single Market is one of its cornerstones and it says that who enters it needs to be controlled. If this is underestimated, it could threaten the building blocks of European integration.
What about those sausages?
Under the protocol, foods of animal origin – yes, like sausage – arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Britain are required to have health certification to ensure that they meet European standards, should they end up in Ireland. which is still part of the EU Single Market.
The British want a light-touch system – that is, one with minimal checks – on goods that companies promise will stay in Northern Ireland.
But the EU wants Britain to sign off on Europe’s health certification rules to reduce the need for controls. So far many of the rules have been waived during the “grace period”, and if enacted, Brussels’ latest proposals should stem the “sausage wars”.
What would happen if Britain withdrew from protocol?
Britain says it already has grounds to invoke an emergency clause known as Article 16 that allows it to act unilaterally, effectively allowing it to suspend parts of the protocol . It doesn’t plan to do so at the moment, but the option remains on the table.
If Britain does so, the European side will most likely accuse Mr Johnson of breaking a treaty. This could lead to retaliation and a possible trade war between the UK and the EU.
Is this all just negotiating tactic?
During endless Brexit talks, Mr Johnson often played hard games with Europeans, sometimes relying on so-called crazy tactics and threatening to leave the bloc without a deal.
So it could be just another roll of the negotiation dice, and most analysts agree that, for the British, winning concessions on protocol from Brussels would be the best outcome.
The European Commission’s response has been to focus on talking to business and other groups in Northern Ireland and solving their practical problems. It hopes the concessions announced on Wednesday will satisfy business groups in Northern Ireland, if not all of the demands of the government in London. Brussels has limited room to maneuver, however, if Britain does indeed press its demand for a change in the role of the European Court of Justice in arbitration of disputes.
So isn’t it risky?
Yes, because, after all, Mr Johnson has no real choice but to break protocol and give the Republic of Ireland the courage to revive the Irish border. It could spark sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, spark a trade war with Brussels and escalate tensions with the Biden administration.
Monica Pronzuk contributed reporting from Brussels