Sunday 26 February 2023

Brexit Vs the Northern Ireland Protocol

Towards the end of his time as Prince of Wales, the King said he would be politically impartial and aloof as per convention when he became monarch. More than a few Westminster eyebrows were raised when he was scheduled to meet EU president Ursula von der Leyen this weekend. Because coincidences don't happen in politics, several Brexiteers were quick to cry foul. According to the Daily Mail, the DUP and Jacob Rees-Mogg protested the King's meeting at the juncture of advanced talks between the UK and the EU set on resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol quagmire. They're right to have picked up something fishy. With all the subtlety of a brick through a constituency office window, facing opposition from his backbenches Rishi Sunak knows associating the King with whatever deal they cook up will make it harder for the Brexit ultras and DUP to vote against.

Nevertheless, news of advanced talks and the seeming likelihood of a resolution marks a clean break with Boris Johnson's handling of the mess. For starters, he was primarily responsible for it. Recalling the turbulent parliamentary year of 2019, after making a song and dance about Theresa May's efforts to secure a deal with the EU, Johnson was able to cobble something together that bore more than a passing resemblance to the document he resigned from May's cabinet over. The UK would leave the EU's customs area in its entirety, except the small print said that while an EU/UK land border lies along the line between the north and the Republic for the purposes of the deal it would move into the Irish Sea. This customs frontier meant goods from the UK mainland passing into the North would be liable for customs charges if they carried a risk of heading south. Bear in mind this deal was supposed to be an insurance policy, the terms of which the UK and EU would default to if a proper trade deal between the two was not secured. In typical slapdash fashion, Johnson didn't care about the detail of the deal. It was done, he could slap "oven ready" on it, and worry about it after winning a general election.

31st January, 2020 comes and we're outside the EU. The UK immediately moves into the transitional period where little to nothing changes. It's the holding pattern until a new trading partnership is negotiated. However, in February the Tories signalled they would be approaching the coming negotiations as a zero sum game. Having seen how Brexit brinkmanship benefited their electoral fortunes, talking up the talks as a battle of plucky Britain versus the combined might of Europe was yet more cynical games playing. While outlines of a draft trade deal were quick to emerge, by the summer talks had stalled and the UK was threatening to walk away if the EU persisted with the Northern Ireland Protocol. Indeed, the government announced it was introducing a UK internal markets bill which, while sounding dry on the surface, amounted to unilaterally altering the withdrawal agreement. It conceded it was preparing to break the law in a "very specific and limited way". This was the usual Johnson theatre, and therefore Downing Street greeted the election of Joe Biden with some dismay. Johnson believed the promise of a quick trade deal with the United States would give him leverage in the talks, and that was on the cards if Donald Trump had won re-election. Furthermore, given the pro-Irish component of American politics, Johnson was aware brinkmanship and threats towards Ireland were no longer consequence-free.

The talks were not looking good, and in December Johnson was talking about an Australian as opposed to a Canadian-style relationship with the EU. I.e. A euphemism for a no-deal scenario. Yet a deal was finally struck on Christmas Eve. It was a poor agreement that erected more bureaucracy, and particularly hammered the UK's efforts at selling services into the EU. A disaster considering the sector comprised 80% of GDP. The language about regulatory divergence covered for the fact £650bn of annual trade with the EU was bound up with conforming to its standards. As far as Northern Ireland was concerned, the new trade deal looked an awful lot like the withdrawal agreement. The UK still could not freely sell goods into one part of its territory, and the new rules governing UK/EU trade solidified it. Disruptions to the flow of goods under this arrangement were described by Johnson as "teething troubles", and the long and interminable negotiations about the implementation of the Protocol started in earnest after it came into force. Matters weren't helped by the DUP and their unwillingness to make it work. They boycotted talks, attempted to use the courts to block the Protocol, and shrugged their shoulders as loyalist areas erupted with violence. The resignation of Arlene Foster and her replacement by Edwin Poots gets off to a great start as he threatens to suspend checks on goods coming from the UK, making the agreement unworkable. This proved to be an empty threat as within two months of Foster's departure he was gone.

For the remainder of the year, EU threats of legal action and Downing Street threats of unilateral action meant the unsteady status quo persisted. Fast forward to the Assembly elections, and because of Northern Ireland's peculiar status its economy was actually outperforming the rest of the UK. Johnson's hasty approach to deal making was laying the material basis for unification, and loyalism was stuck on an existential cliff's edge. Remaining in the UK is its raison d'etre, but how can it retain mass support if loyalty to king and country means making its community poorer? Small wonder they fractured and we're in the absurd situation of having Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill in position as First Minister-in-waiting. As far as Johnson was concerned, the moment demanded more brinkmanship and on 13th June the government published its Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which in UK law would grant ministers powers to set aside the treaty and implement new rules. Never mind this would contravene international law, jeopardise trade with the EU, and undermine the UK's ability to sign future deals with other countries. The passing of the Bill into the committee stage saw the EU begin legal proceedings. But with the departure of Johnson, things start cooling down. When Liz Truss enters office she says she looks forward to a reset of UK-Ireland relations. This carries on when Sunak takes over, and slow progress turns into real progress, to the point where we are today with resolution in sight.

What the Brexit ultras and the DUP fear, and what is likely to be struck with the EU, is some sort of confirmation of the status quo. A characteristic Johnsonian fudge has now governed UK trade into Northern Ireland for two years, and the relatively light touch controls have suited both sides of the border ensuring the disruption of Brexit has been mitigated. Affirming what is with a new range of oversight mechanisms, scopes for further talks and so on, locks a part of the UK into the EU, which limits the prospects of regulatory divergence. It makes a nonsense of the entire Brexit prospectus and will underline the argument frequently made by the remain camp, of the UK's transition from a rule maker to a rule taker outside the EU. It will make the UK look weak, and where the responsibility for this state of affairs lies is very clear. And, like the DUP, the Brexiteers worry what it's doing to the union. For Johnson it's just another issue he can use to remind the media that he still exists and will do politics in between his busy, lucrative speaking schedule. But for Sunak, it would be a real coup. With nothing much going for the Tories in the polls, a victory for sensible briefcase Toryism might turn some floating voter heads - especially those who like their "grown ups". The problem he has if should he get this through, the right of the party are going to become even more ungovernable. Especially if it only passes the Commons with Labour votes. For once, Sunak is doing the right thing. And it could prematurely end his premiership.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Poots tried to suspend checks as Agriculture Minister, six months or so after he’d stepped down as First Minister