In its latest efforts to annoy the rest of Europe as spectacularly as possible, the British government put forward head-scratching new plans Monday to override a critical deal it reached with the European Union—after tortuous negotiations—just three years ago.
The unorthodox move has been variously alleged to threaten the integrity of the European Union (EU); the union of the United Kingdom; and even undermine the peace process on the island of Ireland.
Boris Johnson—a prime minister who narrowly survived a vote of no confidence after attending a series of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street—sees the rogue move differently, characterizing his explosive legislation as “a relatively trivial set of adjustments.”
Trouble has been brewing around what to do about Northern Ireland for months. Now, it seems, Johnson’s solution for breaking the deadlock is to scrap parts of one section of the deal known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. His Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, is expected to introduce legislation that can override parts of the Protocol into parliament on Monday.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a trade deal which dictates how goods enter Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. after Brexit. It was agreed between the U.K. and the EU in 2019 and was designed to stop a hard border being placed between the Republic of Ireland (which is in the EU) and Northern Ireland (which is in the U.K.). This was vital to protect a 1998 peace deal which brought an end to decades of major sectarian violence in the region. Instead of a hard border, customs checks were imposed on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
But that has, in effect, divided the United Kingdom by creating a border in the Irish Sea between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. Communities in Northern Ireland that strongly identify as British hate the arrangement, saying it effectively pushes them out of the U.K., and some British companies have even cut ties with Northern Ireland businesses due to the new paperwork. Pro-London lawmakers in Northern Ireland have even been blocking vital functions of Stormont, the region’s devolved assembly, until “action” has been taken on the protocol. And the row has also enraged Conservative politicians in Westminster. Johnson is now seeking to placate their demands for change.
The problem is, he’s doing so by trashing the agreement he made with the EU just three years ago. The EU has refused to bend to a new negotiation, citing the fact that Johnson agreed to the current arrangements. Brussels also fears for the integrity of the EU itself if it can’t control what enters its single market trade bloc. So in the face of EU stonewalling any mutual changes to the Protocol, it appears Johnson will attempt to override the agreement unilaterally—a move which some critics say could break international law and badly damage Britain’s reputation on the world stage.
“It's a bureaucratic change that needs to be made. Frankly it's a relatively trivial set of adjustments,” Johnson said in an LBC radio interview Monday. “All we are trying to do is have some bureaucratic simplifications between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” The Irish government, on the other hand, called Johnson’s proposed action “deeply damaging” which would represent a “low point” in his approach to Brexit.
The proposed legislation to override the Protocol will still need to get through the British parliament, which could take months. But if successful, the consequences for the U.K., Ireland, and the EU could be huge. London’s relationship with Washington may also come under strain as Biden has repeatedly made it clear that peace in Northern Ireland is a personal priority.