The writer is an advisor to the consultancy firm Global Counsel and was a special advisor for Europe to Theresa May.
There is a truce in the sausage war between Britain and the EU. The extension of the grace period for chilled meats going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland has saved time in finding solutions. It is unlikely to be used successfully. And this concerns a part of the world that does not have the luxury of using war as a metaphor for trade disputes.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a legally binding international instrument. Sadly, she’s also a Brexit unicorn. We can identify three species of this unreal creature.
The former are fantastic proposals because the other party will never accept them. They include ideas disseminated by successive UK governments who have demanded that the EU accept an imperfect application of their single market rules. For this reason, they did not go anywhere.
The second are technically unfeasible propositions. The most memorable I heard while working for Theresa May’s government was that the Northern Ireland border was monitored by drones. Technical challenges aside, border communities were unlikely to enjoy being buzzed around day and night by flying cameras.
Third, some proposals are negotiable and technically feasible but cannot be implemented on the ground. This protocol is such a unicorn, as both parties should have known. By creating a tangible barrier, it undermines the sense of British identity of the Unionist community and looks like a violation of the 1998 peace agreement. Boris Johnson’s government is now reluctant to implement its agreement, at least in part. for fear of the consequences.
The government’s persistent refusal of the legal and practical consequences of this treaty betrays a bad conscience. It also indicates bad faith in its implementation. An inability to tell the truth about what he did and why makes this government an unconvincing defender of protocol change. This gives the EU no reason to trust what it is saying.
When British ministers raise the risk of civil unrest, they are believed to be crying wolf. The worst motives are blamed: that this British government should not alert the EU of discontent in Northern Ireland but encourage it. When rudeness is added to mistrust, the EU is not convinced by the ministers’ explanation that their choice is between letting tensions rise in Northern Ireland or acting, if necessary unilaterally, to prevent it.
As for the EU, it just wants what was agreed in the protocol to be implemented. But the world is not that simple. While a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a threat to the peace process, the same logic applies to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The protocol’s stated purpose – to uphold the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement – and its actual terms are only partially consistent.
No type of Brexit is helpful for Northern Ireland, but it can be made tolerable. For this, the protocol must be made acceptable to both unionist and nationalist communities. The UK and the EU each reject the improvements proposed by the other.
The UK calls on the EU to take a risk-based approach for goods from Great Britain destined for Northern Ireland, not the EU. The EU fears this precedent. But, apart from trivial exceptions, nowhere else does the Single Market border cross a country outside the EU. Nowhere is it so linked to a delicate peace process.
The EU proposes that the UK aligns with EU agri-food rules. This would remove painful parts of the border between Britain and Northern Ireland and benefit all UK agri-food trade with the EU. But that would actually mean the adoption of rules.
The EU is a lot of things: a peace project, a vector of prosperity, a means of giving its Member States collective strength. It achieves this through interdependence. Brexit seeks independence from the UK, but Northern Ireland alone means the idea of a clean break is the biggest unicorn of them all.
Independence can work from a distance. The difficulty is that the EU offers a degree of dependency to neighbors who want or need public goods created by closer ties but reject membership. As the Swiss debate shows, this creates difficult choices.
The ideological cost of each side’s response to Northern Ireland’s problems is too high for the other. Each thinks they can politically endure the pain of any sanction the other might impose for continued disagreement. Each side is more concerned with giving the other free concessions than with making a peace process work together.
A persistent disagreement seems easier than a principled compromise that could turn a unicorn into a real solution. So the UK and the EU will likely use the grace period to continue to throw metaphorical stones at each other. The more they do, the more likely such stone-throwing in Northern Ireland is to be literal.