Boris Johnson makes his biggest Brexit bet yet
Perhaps the reckoning is that things will calm down by the next election – Northern Ireland’s stalled assembly will purr again, EU feathers smoothed and frictionless trade achieved. In the meantime, a deadly fight serves as a useful distraction from Johnson’s other troubles and rekindles his Brexiteer ties.
If so, it’s a high-risk gamble, and one that seems both desperate and disregardful to the people of Northern Ireland whom the bill is apparently designed to help.
Johnson described the bill as a minor “bureaucratic simplification”. In fact, it’s far-reaching and more meaningful than if it had triggered the notorious ‘Article 16’ which allows parties to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The EU understands that this is a bullshit; the bill has a long way to go before being approved and even that is unclear.
The bill’s legal justification invokes the obscure “doctrine of necessity” – the idea that action is compelled by the lack of an alternative and the urgency of the situation – and the government claims the Protocol undermines the Good Friday Agreement. But the doctrine generally requires “grave and imminent peril,” and that’s hard to argue here.
The protocol introduced friction, cost and inconvenience to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. But he also shielded Northern Ireland from many Brexit hazards. Northern Ireland’s economy is performing better than the rest of the country, thanks to the protocol, which has kept it in the EU’s single market for trade in goods. Her companies are broadly supportive of the Protocol and she has just held peaceful local elections. Irish government statistics showed that Northern Ireland’s exports to the Republic were rising sharply, while overall trade between Britain and Ireland fell by 13% in 2021.
Yes, the EU rather overestimated its earlier proposals for flexibility. But the reality is that a substantial part of the verifications required by the Protocol have not been implemented, and the consensus is that many of the temporary concessions would become permanent.
It is hard to see the EU giving in to a set of unilateral demands imposed by a breach of protocol. Brussels understands that the Prime Minister’s days could be numbered. Why waste concessions on Johnson?
It’s a shame because there are good arguments to improve the operation. Only a small proportion of goods (a sixth according to the government) entering Northern Ireland from Britain are destined for the EU single market. The government’s idea of a green lane for trusted traders with goods intended to remain in Northern Ireland – with spot checks and tough penalties (including criminal prosecution) for those found in breach – and a red lane for customs checks and checks on goods destined for the EU is reasonable.
Some measures in the bill are more problematic. Removing the EU’s right to conduct inspections, for example, is unlikely to work. And having a dual regulatory regime, allowing businesses to choose whether to follow UK or EU standards for goods placed in Northern Ireland, invites confusion and would be an enforcement nightmare.
The bill also aims to remove EU controls on state aid measures involving taxation and spending. No doubt the government would like that, but access to the EU market comes at a price, so it’s hard to see how it will pass. And while the complete removal of the EU Court of Justice from dispute oversight will please hardcore Brexit supporters, it is of little concern to voters in Northern Ireland and will only anger the EU.
The EU is also strongly interested in cross-community support in Northern Ireland and successful implementation of the protocol, which is an incentive to find greater flexibility. The only way to achieve this, however, will be a negotiation in which the EU will have a strong hand.
So far, the list of critics includes legal experts, the European Commission, Democratic lawmakers in the United States, the German government, the Irish government and many Brexit supporters, including a good number of conservative politicians. A majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members sent a letter to Johnson on Monday saying the bill ‘goes against the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but also most locals. of Northern Ireland”.
The Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, which had abandoned the power-sharing deal in protest at the Protocol, said it reserved judgment. This should come as no surprise – the DUP is never impressed. It will hold more, even though it always seems to have less.
The alternative to negotiating over existing issues is a trade war, which should be unthinkable, especially in the context of current geopolitics. Perhaps Johnson’s bet is once again that strategy from the edge brings results. If successful, this leaves Global Britain looking like an empty slogan. But the bigger risk is that more than reputation will be lost here: while the EU stands to lose if tensions turn into retaliation, it’s the UK – the worst-performing advanced economy – that will suffer. most.
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Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.
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