The UK Government has decided to reignite a row with the EU in its preferred “blame it all on Brussels” policy after threatening to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol this week.
Despite the fact Boris Johnson and the current government signed up to it and subsequently won the 2019 election thanks to its “oven-ready deal,” the Brexit fallout seems far from over.
EU Ambassador to the UK, Joao Vale de Almeida, has announced there will be retaliation if the UK unilaterally rewrites part of the Brexit deal, after UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss announced a new bill this week that would undermine the agreement.
The part of the deal in question is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which includes special provisions on trade going through Northern Ireland, and ensures no physical borders with the southern Republic of Ireland – a prerequisite for peace under the Good Friday Agreement which ended years of civil war between British loyalists and Irish republicans.
Despite the sensitivity of the issue, the government, backed by a large part of the Conservative Party, are convinced that the UK can disregard its commitments on the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit deal, and push for a renegotiation of the deal.
This claim has been routinely pushed back by the EU. “We can’t renegotiate the protocol: the ink on the signatures is hardly dry,” said de Almeida on Thursday.
UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss’ domestic legislative bill would unilaterally rework aspects of the protocol, even if she claimed she would ‘prefer a negotiated solution’ with the EU.
According to the new bill, the government wants a “green channel” for goods going to Northern Ireland from Great Britain that would not go on to the Republic of Ireland, halting all checks on these exports. The bill is not expected to be published for several weeks, but if enacted could spark a trade war with the EU.
Going back on terms agreed in the Brexit treaty unilaterally would mark a breach of contract with the EU under international law, particularly as the deal was signed by the same ministers who today are claiming they want to rework parts of the deal.
Significant concerns about the announcement by the UK government. Unilateral actions are not acceptable.
The potential of the flexibilities proposed by the @EU_Commission is yet to be fully explored. They can deliver a real difference on the ground.
— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) May 17, 2022
“This approach does not necessarily solve any problems, and it most likely creates more problems,” said de Almeida.
The EU continues to insist that there is no new mandate for renegotiation, as instructed by the 27 EU Member States and relayed by the EU’s Brexit representative, Maroš Šefčovič.
Lost all trust
The Ambassador has also lamented the UK’s incapacity to stick to their EU withdrawal deal. The government continues to play politics with the most fragile part of the Brexit agreement and tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol could have dangerous implications on the 1997 Good Friday Agreement peace deal, which ended decades of conflict between Protestant British loyalists and Catholic Irish republicans.
Establishing trust is a key element in negotiations and diplomacy, but Boris Johnson’s government is determined to keep provoking rows and then pointing the finger at the EU for domestic audiences.
“I’m worried about the low levels of trust that exist today, between the EU and the UK: between our leaders, between all of us that are involved in this relationship,” he said.
Little has changed according to EU Ambassador Vale de Almedia, after a similar row happened 18 months ago. “We have the same narrative – using legislation to override an international treaty. I feel myself back in the fall of 2020, with the internal markets bill.”
The latest row comes in response to the victory of the Irish republican party, Sinn Fein, who won a majority in the Northern Ireland regional parliament for the first time ever in the Northern Ireland elections on 5 May. Many analysts have suggested the result is a response to the loyalist ruling party the DUP’s backing of Brexit and the Protocol in the deal.
US moves to protect Good Friday Agreement
The situation has also provoked the wrath of one of Britain’s closest allies and co-guarantors of the Good Friday peace deal, the United States.
In response to the UK’s proposals this week, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi stated on Thursday evening that if the UK were to continue to undermine the peace deal in Northern Ireland and tear up the protocol, Congress would block any future free trade deal between the UK and the US.
It is deeply concerning that the United Kingdom now seeks to unilaterally discard the Northern Ireland Protocol, which preserves the important progress and stability forged by the Accords. It continues to enjoy strong bipartisan & bicameral support in the United States Congress.
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) May 19, 2022
As part of the United States diplomatic efforts, a nine-person delegation led by a close ally of President Biden will visit Brussels on Friday morning and London on Saturday in order to ease tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The tour is aimed at brokering a deal between the UK and the EU, and signaling the US’ unwavering commitment to the Good Friday Agreements.
With all the multiple ongoing crises, the latest Brexit row proves the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is far from over.