Boris Johnson’s government is now convinced that it should never have signed the Northern Ireland Protocol, the document attached to the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement from the EU that cost the most to move forward and delayed negotiations until the last minute. Downing Street is now demanding a drastic revision of the Protocol from Brussels, mainly pressured by its Northern Irish unionist allies, starting with the withdrawal of one of its fundamental provisions: judicial supervision of the application of the treaty in the region by the Court of Justice of the EU.
“It is not just about the court itself. It is the very system of which the court is its vertex, a system by which laws are applied in Northern Ireland without any kind of democratic scrutiny or discussion ”, David Frost, British minister for Brexit, warned this Tuesday from Lisbon , after his meeting with the Secretary of State for European Affairs of the Portuguese Government, Ana Paula Zacarías. “Even now that the EU considers possible solutions to the problem, their behavior has an air of suggesting ‘we have decided what is best for you, and we are going to enforce it,” said Frost.
The Northern Ireland Protocol established that this British region, located in the northeast of the island of Ireland, would remain integrated into the EU internal market after Brexit entered into force. It was the way to avoid the establishment of a new internal border, between the Republic and the British territory, which would have excited the spirits of the most radical and endangered the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which ended decades of violence. sectarian. In return, London and Brussels agreed to create a new customs “border” in the Irish Sea. Effective merchandise controls would be carried out in Northern Irish and English ports, by UK and EU staff.
The unionist parties of the Ulster, especially the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) considered from the first minute that the Protocol was a “treason” that broke the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom for the first time. Graffiti with death threats in the ports of Belfast and Derry / Londonderry forced the suspension of customs controls for several days in early February.
In mid-April, outbreaks of youth violence, mainly in the Protestant neighborhoods of Belfast and Derry, recalled the worst years of the sectarian conflict. Unionist politicians blamed the Protocol signed with the EU for the growing unrest in the region, and since then the government of Boris Johnson has paradoxically blamed the Protocol for being the main destabilizing motive in the region.
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But it was above all a more prosaic trade conflict, the so-called “sausage war” between London and Brussels, which accelerated the rift between the two capitals. Customs and phytosanitary controls on products traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland led to delays and shortages in supermarkets. British sausages, along with other meat products, did not arrive.
In the midst of the pandemic, certain pharmaceutical companies saw how the transport of their products between the islands was complicated. The Johnson government has unilaterally extended the entry into force of the controls it was obliged to impose by the Protocol up to three times, while the EU decided to look the other way so that the tension would not increase.
Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission and Frost’s main interlocutor, has spent months preparing a relaxation of the controls of the Protocol that he will present this Wednesday. But the EU has already made clear that the judicial supervision of the European Court is non-negotiable. It is a fundamental part of the legal structure that sustains the internal market. London has now discovered that such judicial supervision is apparently against its sovereignty, and rather seeks an international arbitration solution.
The new DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has threatened to withdraw from Northern Irish government institutions if the border in the Irish Sea does not disappear. Catholics and Protestants share an autonomous Executive and Parliament, and this co-responsibility is a crucial part of the peace agreement.
Frost has once again wielded the threat of invoking article 16 of the protocol, which allows one of the parties to suspend part of the treaty in the face of “serious economic, social or environmental difficulties”, and which would in practice imply breaking a treaty that the Government of Johnson promised to comply just a year ago.