As in the case of peace agreements, trade deals must be accompanied by the goodwill entrusted with their implementation. Just weeks after the Brexit trade pact came into effect, the UK and the European Union questioned the intentions of a portion of the deal that applies to Northern Ireland. Once again, the relationship between the two sides hinges on resolving disputes over Irish border trade.
In short, the UK claims that Northern Ireland’s new trade rules are not working, but the European Union says the deal is a bargain and Britain must fulfill its treaty obligations. The British Cabinet Affairs Minister, Michael Gove, and the European Union Commissioner, Maros Sivkovic, met last week to ease tensions and work towards a solution. If cooperation between the two sides collapses, it will destabilize Northern Ireland and hamper the ability of the United Kingdom and the European Union to resolve the contentious issues that have been left out of the Brexit deal, from financial services to shellfish exports to musicians’ trips.
The European Union sparked the dispute two weeks ago when it launched Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a precautionary measure that effectively nullifies Ireland’s open borders arrangement. This was done as part of an attempt to prevent the export of “Covid-19” vaccines outside the Union. The European Commission quickly apologized and backed away from the measure, but the damage was already done.
Maintaining an open border between European Union member Ireland and Northern Ireland – which would preserve a major achievement of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that restored peace – was a sine qua non for the difficult divorce talks over Brexit. It was also the European Union’s trump card in the negotiations: open borders mean the UK must either remain in the EU’s customs union (which breaks the bargain for Brexit supporters who want the freedom to do independent trade deals) or set borders in the Irish Sea, which is what Boris Johnson eventually signed it by agreeing to the protocol.
The EU vaccine stumbling block has eroded confidence (neither Ireland nor Britain was consulted) and seemed to confirm the suspicions of EU and Brexit supporters that the bloc used the border issue only to pressure. It gave the UK an opportunity to negotiate more concessions from the European Union. In a letter to Civkovic last week, Goff demanded a number of extensions and exceptions to the deal, including the export of chilled meat products to Northern Ireland.
In his response, ivkovic offered some loosening of quotas for steel imports to Northern Ireland, but rejected requests for an amendment to the agreement. He also warned that Britain is not fulfilling its obligations under the protocol, noting that border control centers in Northern Ireland are not fully functioning and that the agreed inspections are not conducted.
Goff and Sevkovic agreed that the joint committee charged with implementing the protocol would meet by February 24th to provide “the necessary political direction.” This will be the first big test for this new body, which will have to resolve many issues in the future. And, as always, it’s politics that complicates things.
In Northern Ireland, there are frustrations with the changes brought about by the Brexit agreement, especially the anger of farmers who have discovered that they cannot buy some plants grown in Britain due to European Union rules. It didn’t help that Johnson had always denied that the protocol would mean an increase in checks, papers and new restrictions. Arlene Foster – the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party that imposed a “ransom” on Theresa May’s government for two years – took advantage of the controversy to say that the protocol should be abolished completely. Meanwhile, there is pressure on the EU side to not change the agreement and refrain from allowing any exceptions that would jeopardize the single market.
And if it isn’t really clear, there is still much concern about divorce between the UK and the EU. The United Kingdom is outside the European Union, but this relationship has been so deep and broad, and the new trade arrangements are so porous and booby-trapped with review clauses, that it will take years to find a new normal. And in this middle stage, attitudes matter. Leadership on both sides and personal relationships (such as the one between Juve and Sevkovic) will determine whether the differences escalate or resolve.
The truth is that there is no alternative to the Northern Ireland Protocol at present, but with goodwill the protocol can be improved to protect what has long been a fragile peace in Northern Ireland.
If the tensions are not resolved, they will affect discussions around financial services and other areas of bilateral trade. Elections in Northern Ireland next year and voting in 2024 on the protocol itself will provide an opportunity for voters in Northern Ireland and are the first test of the post-Brexit system.
To be published in a special arrangement with the Washington Post and Bloomberg News Service.