LONDON – Britain has embarked on a path of a new confrontation with the European Union on Tuesday by demanding the replacement of one of the most complex and vexatious elements of Brexit: the statute of Northern Ireland.
In a speech to diplomats in Lisbon, David Frost, the Conservative government’s Brexit minister, called for an overhaul of a post-Brexit trade rules deal for Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but shares a politically sensitive land border with Ireland. , a country of the European Union.
The move is a serious escalation in a latent dispute over how Northern Ireland fits into Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The new text proposed by Mr Frost for trade rules, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, rejects certain elements that Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to less than two years ago and contains ideas that the European Union has already rejected.
“We are now facing a very serious situation, the protocol is not working,” Frost said, arguing that instead of protecting a fragile peace process in Northern Ireland, the deal did the opposite.
“The protocol represents a moment of overtaking the EU, when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied, and therefore cannot reasonably last in its current form,” Mr Frost said, adding that he had been written in extreme haste and that the Europeans rejected the idea of changing it “would be a historical error in judgment”.
Her speech served as a sort of preemptive strike, coming just a day before the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, presented its own plans to resolve the difficulties it admits to having arisen with trade mainly between Great Britain. Brittany and Northern Ireland.
Although gentle and amiable, Mr Frost is a hard-line supporter whose aggressive negotiating style was welcomed by Brexit supporters who believed Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May had been jostled by Brussels. Thus, few were surprised that his speech raised the temperature on an inflammatory issue.
But significantly, Frost also called for a change in the role of the highest European court in dispute settlement – an abstract but politically sensitive issue on which the European Union is very unlikely to give in.
This has sparked speculation that demand is a bargaining chip to be traded for other concessions. An alternative theory is that it is designed to cause a full-scale crisis that could lead Mr Johnson to suspend part of the protocol, blaming the European Union and stoking pro-Brexit sentiment at home.
This would likely result in retaliation from the European Union and possibly a trade war with the bloc of 27 countries that Britain officially left in January 2020.
Designed to avoid resuscitating a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the protocol led to checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It is about protecting the integrity of the gigantic single market of the European Union of which Ireland is a part. But it infuriated trade unionists in Northern Ireland who see their place in the UK as essential to their identity and who hate checks on goods coming from mainland Britain, which is part of the same. country.
Mr Johnson has the option to suspend parts of the protocol under Article 16 of the Brexit deal, but he is unlikely to do so before the climate summit, COP26, that the Great Bretagne will host Glasgow from October 31 to November 12.
Rejecting part of the protocol could also exacerbate tensions between Mr Johnson and President Biden. The US President is proud of his Irish heritage and has made it clear his commitment to the Northern Ireland peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement, reached in 1998 after decades of bloody conflict known as the ” The troubles “.
While some analysts believe Mr Johnson wants to move away from protocol to please hard-line Brexit supporters at home, others see Mr Frost’s speech on Tuesday more as a tactical intervention designed to downplay the Brussels influence over any part of the UK, and maximize British sovereignty.
“Frost – who is a staunch Brexiteer – sees this attempt to renegotiate or adjust the protocol as the latest way to weaken the remaining ties between the UK and the EU,” said Katy Hayward, professor of sociology politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. .
Britain, she added, appeared to be “trying to compete for the last bits of EU sovereignty”
Tuesday’s speech follows months of tension over barriers to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, including the flow of certain goods like chilled meats, a divide that has come to be known as the “sausage war”. In recent days this has given way to open sniping in which Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney questioned whether Britain really wanted a deal, and Mr Frost accused his European counterparts of refuse to listen.
Britain maintains the protocol is being implemented unnecessarily cumbersome, while EU officials accuse Mr Johnson of breaking a deal he himself made.
Responding to questions after his speech on Tuesday, Mr Frost said that when Britain agreed to the protocol, it knew it was taking a risk. “We were hoping we were wrong and that the protocol would work,” he said. “It turned out we were right.”
For its part, the European Union has repeatedly rejected Britain’s calls for a renegotiation of the deal. In particular, she opposes the dismissal of the Court of Justice of the European Union, based in Luxembourg and the highest court in the bloc, as final arbitrator of disputes.
Responding on Monday to excerpts from the speech which were released to UK media on Saturday, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer called London’s demand to dismiss the tribunal unacceptable and “ground that we have covered a million times “.
Brussels often points out that this British government signed the agreement, which Mr Frost himself negotiated, and which is now part of international law.
Another Commission spokesperson, Daniel Ferrie, said oversight of European courts was essential to ensure legal consistency and a functioning business environment across the single market.
Removing the tribunal, said Ferrie, “would effectively mean cutting Northern Ireland off from the EU’s single market and related opportunities.”
On Wednesday, the committee will make proposals to facilitate the implementation of the protocol. These measures are expected to include relaxing food and plant safety controls to ease restrictions on trade in chilled meat from Britain to Northern Ireland. It can also facilitate certain customs controls and drug supply controls.
The committee will also come up with some ideas on how to involve citizens, business owners and politicians in Northern Ireland in monitoring the deal.
But Mr Frost’s intervention suggests that such concessions will hardly be enough, setting the stage for several weeks of tense negotiations.
Ms Hayward said the risk for Northern Ireland was that Mr Frost’s approach would do little to reassure the Unionist community about the security of its place in the UK, while raising unrealistic expectations as to the prospects for a brand new agreement.
“If you were to prioritize the peace process above all else when dealing with the issue of protocol and talks with the EU, you wouldn’t be doing it like the UK government has done,” she added.
Etienne castle brought back from London and Steven erlanger reported from Brussels.