The Northern Ireland Protocol and the EU: a Political Problem

Boris Johnson built his 2019 prime ministerial campaign on one three-worded building block: “Get Brexit Done”. Almost three years later, he seems to be trying to Get Brexit Re-done – and the EU aren’t happy about it.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The UK-EU border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a hot sticking point in the Brexit withdrawal negotiations between the UK and the EU. White flags were drawn late in the day in the form of the Northern Ireland Protocol: a 63-page compromise that would enable goods and services to move the border checks entering the Republic of Ireland from Great Britain from the Irish border to the North Sea border, in an attempt to reduce bureaucratic trade within the island and avoid triggering political tension.

Re-doing Brexit

But this bubble of compromise was burst last week when the UK Government introduced its Northern Ireland Protocol Bill into parliament for the first time. If passed, it will replace the border system in the Irish Sea with a laned system: a Green Lane for goods destined only for Northern Ireland, and which do not require checks, and a Red Lane for goods destined for Ireland and the EU, for which checks are mandated.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill: practical or political?

The legal and regulatory jargon that parliamentary bills and protocols are renowned for may cause this to seem like a matter of procedure: how, in practice, will I send my goods across the Irish sea, and where will they be checked?

That’s certainly how Boris Johnson views it. His caution that the Protocol is “turning into a political problem” paints resistance to his proposals as obstructive to a solution that requires a “relatively trivial set of adjustments” rather than more substantial political negotiation. If, according to Johnson’s own proposals for change from July 2021, it is “not possible to operate […] a rigid and unpurposive application of the Protocol in its current form”, then any government would recognise its duty to improve it.

But the EU’s counterargument suggests otherwise. Framing the UK’s decision as a rhetorical act to “undermine trust” suggests that “it is not a matter of technical work but political will” – as former PM Tony Blair puts it in his Institute’s new report.

Besides, if merely a matter of the Protocol’s application, what’s changed since Johnson first described it as a “good arrangement” to Parliament in 2019? Why did the UK Government not flag concerns earlier? Johnson may argue that it is justified by businesses experiencing increased prices of goods and services and of delays in transporting goods, but given that his own Treasury warned from the outset that the arrangement “will be highly disruptive to the NI economy”, such reasoning could backfire on the PM as example of his own government’s slow reaction.

A matter of timing…

It is the timing of the UK’s action against the Protocol’s problems, then – rather than the problems themselves – that warrants attention. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss justified the Bill in a statement to the House of Commons as a “need to restore the balance in the [Good Friday] Agreement”, following the breakdown of cooperation in the Northern Irish Assembly since Sinn Fein’s recent electoral victory. But given that parts of Stormont – not least Sinn Fein themselves – support the Protocol and denounce unilateral UK action, it’s hard to see how Truss’ declaration can be justified.

…or of opportunity?

Sceptics have suggested that the answer may lie behind the door of Number 10. Off the back of a tumultuous few months of fractures and rebellions, the Protocol revisions are being dubbed a last-chance-saloon tactic by the PM to regain support of his own Brexit-supporting MPs. Ignoring the warnings from Brussels, Washington, and even fellow Cabinet members, Johnson is instead heeding the call of the Brexiteers of old with an endorsement for the Bill from the European Research Group (ERG) – a group of hardliner Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party. Consider it a deal brokered: the ERG get closer to the Brexit they first envisioned, while Johnson rebuilds a degree of unity within his ranks and a campaign issue to help him hit his stride.

What’s next for the policy?

Whether a responsible revision of the Protocol’s operations or a political ploy to reassemble a fractured party, the passage of the UK’s Protocol Bill through Parliament will be watched with a wary eye on both sides of the Channel. With implications for customers, businesses, and all those either side of the Irish Sea, it will (once again) be up to the negotiating teams to figure out a friendly, cooperative, and – crucially – workable solution to this increasingly unsolvable problem.

Political consultancy

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