Boris Johnson’s government has new proposals for post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland. The message to the EU is plain enough. The prime minister has no intention of honouring the solemn commitments made in the Irish protocol.
Not so long ago he described the deal he had struck with Brussels as “brilliant”. Now, he is disowning it. The signal to the rest of the world? Britain’s signature on international treaties is just about worthless.
To be clear, there can be no magic resolution of the argument that has been raging between London and Brussels about the operation of new trade arrangements between the UK and the Irish Republic.
The imperative in the Brexit deal was to maintain the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic at the heart of the 1998 Belfast peace agreement. The EU’s legitimate interest was to preserve the integrity of its single market by ensuring Northern Ireland did not become a backdoor for illicit trade. Johnson’s insistence that the UK leave the single market and customs union removed any possibility of a neat answer.
The protocol agreement to police trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland via a de facto border in the Irish Sea was the last remaining option. Johnson understood the implications when he signed, even though he refused to admit them publicly. Now that the protocol is under fire from the Democratic Unionist party and from hardline Tory Brexiters, Johnson, Whitehall insiders say, thinks he can “wish it all away”.
The strategy — if that is the right word for a decision to renege on the terms of an international treaty — is to do nothing. The government has rejected a Brussels proposal that would remove the need for most controls by aligning UK food and veterinary standards with those of the EU. Instead it will just stall, refusing to put in place agreed border checks.
More than that, the UK also proposes to tear up the provisions that afford a role for EU institutions in oversight of trade across the Irish Sea. These were negotiated by Lord David Frost, the present Brexit minister. The same Frost this week declared them to be an affront to UK sovereignty.
The official request is for a “standstill” in the operation of the protocol while both sides prepare for fresh negotiations. I have come across no one in Whitehall who believes the EU will or could accept the new terms.
The calculation, though, is that by drawing out the process, the government will make it impossible for the EU to insist on the original arrangements. In Johnson’s mind this is a can that can be kicked down the road. The longer it is in place, the harder Brussels will find it to change the status quo.
Many of Northern Ireland’s unionists are genuinely discomfited by an accord that complicates trade with Great Britain while maintaining the open border with the Republic. Their worry is that this tilts the economic balance in favour of nationalism.
In a province still defined by identity politics, the concern is understandable. This in turn puts an obligation on the EU to be flexible and pragmatic and to keep customs checks to the minimum needed to protect the single market.
Johnson, however, has been adding fuel to unionist disquiet in order to apply pressure on the EU. Stick to the protocol, the implicit warning to Brussels runs, and you will jeopardise the peace. Applied as it is to a province vulnerable to sectarian extremism, this tactic could politely be described as playing with fire. A blunter call would be that is represents a sinister attempt at blackmail.
The prime minister is unimpressed by Foreign Office concern that his hardline approach will upset the relationship with the US. President Joe Biden is mindful of his Irish heritage. And the White House has a significant stake in the Belfast accord.
Johnson, insiders say, is unconcerned. He has Churchillian pretensions. During his spell as foreign secretary a few years ago, diplomats reported he would spend time in front of the mirror mimicking the wartime leader’s mannerisms. He is not about to be pushed around by Biden.
There is a depressing madness about all this — much as there is about Downing Street’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government has made an offer it knows the EU cannot accept. Even where it is inclined to be flexible, Brussels now has confirmation that the UK cannot be trusted to keep its word. The danger is that Northern Ireland will pay the price.