LONDON – First, the shortages on the supermarket shelves. Then the “sausage wars” over the supply of chilled meat. Today, the disagreement over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland threatens to turn into a full-scale showdown between Britain and the European Union – and one that could upend the United States as well.
Britain on Wednesday said a Brexit treaty on Northern Ireland, negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and called the Northern Ireland Protocol, could create so many problems it may have to be scrapped if it cannot be rewritten.
For detractors of Mr Johnson, the latest statement is proof of 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 worrying lack of sensitivity to sentiment in parts of Northern Ireland and vengeful hostility to Britain for his release from the block.
Behind all of this boasting lurks fears about the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland, and this raises 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 whatever the name of the spy thriller, this dry legal text won’t be on most people’s summer beach lists.
The protocol aims to solve one of the thorniest 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.
This border is disputed and parts of it were fortified during the decades of violence known as the Troubles, but after a peace deal in the late 1990s, these visible signs of division melted 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 half in the British 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.
This 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 Protestants, 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, in part because Mr Johnson not only signed the protocol, but he also negotiated it himself and pushed it through the UK Parliament.
British critics accuse the Europeans of being too rigorous and legalistic in their interpretation of the protocol, and of being too zealous in 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. 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 – coming from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland need health certification to ensure they meet European standards if they are found in Ireland, which, of course, is still part of the European 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 Great 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”, but that is expected to end later this year.
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 the moment, but the option remains on the table.
If Britain does this, the European side will most likely accuse Mr Johnson of breaking a treaty. It could lead to retaliation and even a 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.
But isn’t it risky?
Yes because, at the end of the day, 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.
Leaving aside the impact on Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t be an ideal backdrop for the United Nations climate change conference Mr Johnson is due to host in Glasgow later this year – a time he will have need international allies.