LONDON – For months, a battle over Northern Ireland’s status has been Brexit’s thorniest legacy, even sparking a conflict known as the ‘Sausage Wars’. Now Britain has upped the stakes by demanding that post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland that it agreed to two years ago be removed and replaced.
The European Union responded to that call on Wednesday with a far-reaching plan to address the practical issues raised by this Brexit treaty – the Northern Ireland Protocol – which has sparked a full-scale confrontation between Britain and the block. It is a quarrel that could upset the United States.
The protocol aims to solve one of the most complex issues created by Brexit: what to do with the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is still part of the European Union.
Under the new Brussels proposal, controls on food and animal products from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland would be reduced by 80%, customs formalities for shipments of many goods would be reduced and the flow of medicines. would be assured.
“Today’s package has the potential to make a real and tangible difference on the ground,” said Maros Sefcovic, vice-president of the European Commission, the executive body of the bloc of 27 nations, adding that he It was an “alternative model for the implementation of the protocol.”
But he offered no concessions on a demand made by Britain on Tuesday for a brand new deal, a deal that would remove any role from the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s highest court, as arbiter in disputes. This idea had already been rejected by Brussels.
For Mr. Johnson’s detractors, the disagreement over the protocol reflects his lack of confidence, his willingness to break international commitments and his denial of responsibility for the consequences of the withdrawal from Europe he advocated. Mr Johnson’s allies accuse the European Union of inflexibility in the application of rules, a blatant lack of sensitivity to sentiment in parts of Northern Ireland and vengeful hostility to Britain for his release from the block.
Behind all this boasting lurks fears about the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland that raise the stakes beyond those of typical trade disputes. President Biden, who often speaks of his Irish heritage, has previously warned Mr Johnson not to do anything to undermine the Good Friday deal that helped end the violence.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
It’s fair to say that while the deal sounds like the title of a spy thriller, it’s actually dry legal text that won’t be on most holiday playlists. people.
The border between Northern Ireland, which remains in the UK, and Ireland, which is part of the European Union, is disputed, and parts of it have been fortified during decades of violence known as the ” the troubles “. But after the Good Friday peace accord in 1998, these visible signs of division disappeared along the open border. No one wants the checkpoints back, but as part of his Brexit plan, Mr Johnson has insisted on leaving the European customs union and its single market, which allows goods to freely cross European borders without checks.
The protocol establishes a plan to deal with this unique situation. It does this by leaving Northern Ireland half in the European system (and its giant market) and half in the UK system. It sounds neat – logical, even – until you try to make it work.
Why doesn’t Britain like it?
The plan means more checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, creating a border along the Irish Sea and dividing the UK. In the face of all the new bureaucracy, some UK companies have stopped supplying stores in Northern Ireland, saying they simply cannot handle the extra red tape now required.
It has angered some Tory lawmakers and inflamed the sentiment of those in Northern Ireland who want the region to continue to be part of the UK. Unionists, mostly Protestant, identify as British and believe the changes could threaten their future in the UK.
So while not being able to get the right kind of sausage might seem like a small inconvenience, for many trade unionists it seems their British identity is what’s in the deep fryer.
Why is the EU insisting on it?
The bloc retreated, partly because Mr Johnson signed the protocol, but also because he negotiated it himself and pushed it through the British Parliament.
British critics accuse the Europeans of being too strict and legalistic in their interpretation of the protocol, and of being too zealous about the controls required.
But European leaders believe the existential interests of the bloc are threatened. For Brussels, the single market is one of its cornerstones and he says he must control what goes into it. If this is undermined, it could threaten the building blocks of European integration.
What about those sausages?
Under the protocol, foods of animal origin – yes, like sausages – sourced from mainland Britain in Northern Ireland need health certification to ensure they meet European standards if they are found in Ireland, which is still part of the European Union’s single market.
The British want a light system – that is, a system in which controls are minimal – on the goods that companies promise to stay in Northern Ireland.
But the European Union wants Britain to adhere to European health certification rules in order to minimize the need for controls. So far, many regulations have been lifted during a ‘grace period’ and, if passed, the latest proposals from Brussels are expected to end the ‘sausage war’.
What would happen if Britain pulled out of the protocol?
Britain says it already has reason to roll out an emergency clause known as Article 16 that allows it to act unilaterally, effectively allowing it to suspend parts of the protocol. He has no plans to do so at this time, but the option remains on the table.
If Britain does this, the European side will most likely accuse Mr Johnson of breaking a treaty. This could lead to retaliation and a possible trade war between Britain and the European Union.
Is this all just a negotiating tactic?
During the endless Brexit talks, Mr Johnson has often played hard with the Europeans, sometimes relying on a so-called crazy strategy and threatening to leave the bloc without any deal.
So this may be just another roll of the dice in the negotiations, and most analysts believe the British would think the best outcome would be to get concessions on the Brussels Protocol.
The response of the European Commission has been to speak with companies and other groups in Northern Ireland and focus on solving their practical problems. He hopes the concessions offered on Wednesday will satisfy Northern Ireland business groups, if not all of the London government’s demands. Brussels has limited room for maneuver, however, if Britain really presses its demand for a change in the role of the European Court of Justice in dispute arbitration.
Isn’t that risky?
Yes, because ultimately Mr Johnson has no real alternative to the protocol, unless he tear it up and challenge the Republic of Ireland to resuscitate the Irish border. This could escalate sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, spark a trade war with Brussels and escalate tensions with the Biden administration.
Monika Pronczuk contributed to the report from Brussels