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UK’s Northern Ireland antics imperil other goals

3 minute read

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on in a news conference in London, Britain, July 12, 2021. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS

LONDON, July 21 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Brexit did not remain done for very long. Less than two years after Boris Johnson agreed a bespoke deal for Northern Ireland, and seven months after he signed the treaty taking Britain out of the European Union, the prime minister is trying to change it. Johnson’s reckless approach undermines his chances of getting a compromise, and threatens his other ambitions.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, which Johnson’s newly formed government negotiated in a rush amid a domestic parliamentary stalemate in 2019, always looked wobbly. By leaving the EU’s single market and customs union, Britain created a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU. But both sides wanted to avoid physical border controls. The resulting compromise meant Northern Ireland remained partly in the EU’s single market, while goods flowing between the province and the rest of Great Britain would face checks.

That arrangement has increased trade friction across the Irish Sea, while stimulating the flow of goods between Northern Ireland and its neighbour to the south. The only surprise is that this has come as a surprise to Johnson and his chief negotiator, David Frost.

Britain has some legitimate gripes that the EU is being overly zealous in its monitoring of trade flows. The Northern Ireland Executive reckons 20% of all EU-wide checks on products of animal origin in the first three months of this year were carried out on goods arriving in Northern Ireland.

However, Johnson’s proposals for changes – spelled out on Wednesday – go well beyond minor tweaks. Specifically, Britain wants to remove the European Court of Justice as the ultimate arbiter of the agreement. That implies renegotiating the whole deal, an option the EU swiftly rejected.

The EU is reluctant to resume old Brexit battles. But European governments will also be wary of making any concessions to a prime minister seeking to renegotiate a treaty he only signed in December last year. President Joe Biden’s administration will also take a dim view of anything that threatens Northern Ireland’s political stability. Johnson is hoping to play an international leadership role in securing a global climate deal in Glasgow this November. His latest Northern Ireland antics imperil that goal.

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- Britain on July 21 demanded a new deal to oversee post-Brexit trading involving Northern Ireland and warned the European Union that London would be justified in unilaterally deviating from a deal it struck with the bloc just last year.

- The Northern Ireland Protocol seeks to protect the EU’s single market while avoiding land borders between the British province and the Irish Republic. However, the British government said checks on goods between the British mainland and Northern Ireland have proved burdensome to business and an anathema to “unionists” who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. “We cannot go on as we are,” Brexit minister David Frost told parliament.

- Frost said Britain wanted a new “balance” which meant governance of the accord was no longer policed by EU institutions and the European Court of Justice. He also called for a “standstill period” which would maintain grace periods for checks on certain goods already in place, and a freeze on existing legal actions.

- Britain unilaterally extended a grace period for the implementation of full checks due to begin in March covering shipments of chilled meats products, and the EU later agreed this could be extended to the end of September.

Editing by George Hay, Karen Kwok and Oliver Taslic

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