The dispute between the UK government and the European Commission over post-Brexit trade rules agreed for Northern Ireland has reached a new crunch point in their long-running row.
What is the Northern Ireland protocol?
It is the part of the Brexit divorce deal between the EU and UK, agreed in 2019, that was designed to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland has a land border with the EU and, to avoid checks on the Border after the UK voted for Brexit in 2016, special arrangements had to be agreed for trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. The international agreement became part of UK domestic law and came into force in January 2021.
How does it work in practice?
It was agreed that Northern Ireland would follow EU rules on goods and product standards as part of the EU's strict rules on its single market. This meant that inspections of products and document checks on goods heading into Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom would take place at Northern Irelands ports. The EU operates strict rules on food and requires mandatory border checks on food products such as milk and eggs from non-EU countries so, under the protocol, EU import controls must be applied to these goods entering Northern Ireland.
What are the objections to the protocol?
Unionist parties in Northern Ireland want the protocol replaced because they say it damages Northern Ireland’s economy. More fundamentally, they argue that it is at odds with their unionist ideology as they claim it poses an “existential threat” to the future of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. Some Loyalists fear it will lead to an economic united Ireland.
What impact is this opposition having in Northern Ireland?
The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest unionist party and second largest party in Northern Ireland after Sinn Féin following last week's Assembly elections, have said that it will not allow a new power-sharing government to be formed in Northern Ireland unless there are significant changes to the protocol. Their support is required to form a new government at Stormont.
Does the UK government oppose the protocol?
Despite helping to negotiate the protocol and supporting it when it was voted through the UK parliament, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government now opposes the arrangement. It claims that the protocol was only ever a compromise and that the EU Commission is applying the practical arrangements around its enforcement too rigidly. It wants the checks and paperwork required on goods moving between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK scrapped.
The UK government also wants changes to allow goods that stay in Northern Ireland to only have to comply with British standards, not EU law. It wants to remove European Court of Justice oversight of how the protocol is operated.
What is UK government proposing?
In a move that has escalated long-running differences over the protocol to a new crisis point, the UK government is once again threatening to abandon parts of the post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. The Times newspaper in London reported on Tuesday that Johnson would move, perhaps as early as next week, to override large parts of the protocol in British law.
The UK has previously threatened to trigger article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side to suspend any part of the agreement that causes "economic, societal or environmental difficulties." UK foreign secretary Liz Truss is said to have asked officials to prepare draft legislation to scrap key parts of the protocol, including checks on goods, European Court of Justice oversight and the requirement that Northern Irish businesses must follow EU rules.
On Tuesday, Truss said the UK’s preference was for a “negotiated solution” but that she would not shy away from “taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found.” UK attorney general Suella Braverman is reported to have given Johnson’s legal cover to override the protocol because of the “disproportionate and unreasonable” way it has been implemented by the EU. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has rejected the “false narrative” around the British government’s claims that the EU has been inflexible on the protocol.
Any UK unilateral action would mark a further dramatic deterioration in EU-UK relations.
How is the UK government justifying potential moves to dismantle the protocol?
In a call with Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Tuesday, Johnson pointed to a fresh sense of urgency around the political situation in Northern Ireland over the DUP's boycott of any participation in a new Stormont government until the issue is resolved. The British prime minister has argued that the protocol undermines the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland peace deal signed on Good Friday 1998, because it does not command cross-community support.
Is there concern within the UK around such a move?
There has been disquiet expressed internally among UK officials about taking actions over the Northern Ireland Brexit deal that might rile US president Joe Biden and EU leaders and how at trade war could exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis at home. Theresa May, the former UK prime minister whose leadership was cut short by Brexit, warned Johnson against unilateral action on the protocol, saying he must consider "what such a move would say about the UK and its willingness to abide by treaties."
How has the EU reacted?
Last year the EU offered to reduce customs checks by 50 per cent and checks on agri-foods by 80 per cent in "far-reaching" proposals but the UK government this week rejected these, claiming that they would "worsen the current trading arrangements." European leaders, including German chancellor Olaf Scholz, have warned Britain against taking unilateral action to scrap or break an international agreement it has signed up to. The Taoiseach told Johnson on their call on Tuesday about his serious concerns at any UK unilateral action saying that it would destabilise Northern Ireland and erode trust. He has called for an intensification of EU-UK negotiations.
What has the reaction been in the US?
President Joe Biden has urged the UK not to walk away from the protocol. The White House has called for "courage, cooperation and leadership" and for both sides to continue negotiations. The UK government dispatched Conor Burns, a key ally of Johnson's and his envoy on the Northern Ireland Protocol, to Washington to sell Johnson's plan to the Americans.
How could this dispute escalate?
The EU has ruled out any renegotiation of the protocol saying it was “not an option” and warned that there would be swift and decisive action against the UK if it ripped parts of the protocol. This raises the spectre of a trade war that could start with tariffs on symbolic British goods such as Scottish salmon and whisky, and extend to a full suspension of the comprehensive post-Brexit trade agreement with the UK that the EU has said is very much tied to the protocol.
Are there complicating factors?
The biggest one is Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Britain and EU will be keen not to weaken Western unity in its response to sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine. However, accusations of international treaty breaches amongst allies would cause tensions between British and European leaders and further embolden Russian leader Vladimir Putin as Europe faces the fallout - economic and otherwise - from a prolonged conflict on its eastern border.