Why maximalist Northern Ireland demands won’t work

Good afternoon. After a (blissful) week off I had fully expected that this week’s newsletter would be devoted to dissecting the guts of the long-promised Northern Ireland Bill that was expected to be published this Monday.

Well, it’s Thursday now and there is still no sign of the bill, which the British government, the sovereigntist wing of the Tory party and the leadership of the Democratic Unionist party all hope will resolve the crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol.

We’ll come back to why the bill has been delayed and the political predicament that tabling the legislation now poses a weakened Boris Johnson, but first a thought on the bill itself, which is designed to hand sweeping powers to ministers to “switch off” parts of the protocol.

That means, among other things, ending Irish Sea border regulatory and customs checks on goods heading only for Northern Ireland; ending the requirement to refer UK subsidy decisions to Brussels if they affect the region; and removing the role of the European Court of Justice in arbitrating the agreement.

Even imagining for a moment that such a bill became law (a long way off) and that Johnson’s ministers used the powers contained therein, it has never been clear why Johnson or the DUP think that this would resolve the row over the protocol.

What does Johnson think would happen after this unilateral action to turn the protocol on its head? How do his supporters think Sinn Féin would react to such a move? Let alone the European Commission and EU capitals?

Pulling the trigger only leads to the threat of a trade war with Europe during the worst cost of living crisis since the 1970s and further polarises the very Northern Ireland peace process that the Johnson government says it is seeking to protect and defend.

This is as true now as it was last October when Lord David Frost last marched the Brexiter troops to the top of this hill, and then was forced by the rest of the cabinet to stand them down.

Maximalist, unilateral solutions take us nowhere. It’s clearly illogical for the UK government to argue that the protocol is deeply unbalanced — which arguably it is — and then propose a solution that is equally unbalanced, just in the opposite direction.

The solution, as always in Northern Ireland, will have to be a halfway house of the kind that Anton Spisak, a former UK official who helped negotiate the existing deal, outlined this week for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

But in truth there is little immediate prospect, given current politics in London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels, of the necessary political space opening up to reach such a compromise.

Indeed, as Sir Ivan Rogers observes in his speech today at the European University Institute in Florence, the protocol is likely to remain the defining (and dividing) issue in UK-EU relations “at least for the years that remain for this UK parliament and this commission”.

Which brings us back to Johnson’s political predicament. If the Northern Ireland legislation was never actually going to deliver an operable solution to the problems raised by the protocol (see above) then in so far as it had a discernible political strategy behind it, it was to achieve three things:

  • to bring the DUP back into power-sharing in Stormont

  • to force the EU back to the negotiation table with more concessions

  • to shore up Johnson’s personal political position by burnishing his Brexit credentials

Alas, following the bruising confidence vote this week, the proposed bill is having none of the desired effects.

The DUP, which doesn’t trust Johnson for obvious reasons, says it isn’t going back into power-sharing until the bill is actually on the statute book.

The EU isn’t lining up to give concessions to a British prime minister who may well be gone by the autumn. Why would it?

And the bill itself, when it comes, far from advertising Johnson’s strength, will provide party rebels with ample opportunity to demonstrate his weakness when he puts it to a vote in the Commons. And even if the government wins the vote, it will be held up in the Lords for sure.

In summary, we appear to be heading into an angry hiatus, a state of affairs that pretty much sums up EU-UK relations since Brexit came into force.

One option for Johnson would be to consider triggering Article 16, the safeguards clause in the protocol itself that either side can use if they feel the agreement is having a disproportionately negative economic and societal impact. Of course, Article 16 is not a blank cheque. It requires both sides work together to fix the problem with the minimal disruption possible to the protocol. And using it would mean the British government dignifying the structures of a treaty that it currently wants to turn on its head.

More likely, Johnson can just table the bill if he believes he has the numbers in the Commons and hope that this buys him a little political space. Welcome to life as a lame duck, prime minister.

Brexit in numbers

Bar chart of % of total exports showing Changes to UK food exports

The data on the negative effects of Brexit on UK exports continue to pile up, with the food and drink industry among the hardest hit by post-Brexit border bureaucracy that flows from the absence of a veterinary agreement or standards alignment with the EU.

That’s not an insignificant problem, given that the food and drink industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, employing nearly 500,000 people and contributing almost £30bn a year to the economy, according to the Food and Drink Federation.

Today’s chart demonstrates just how important the EU is to UK food exports, but this is only one half of the story. UK food tech is super-competitive internationally and is reliant on imports of lots of ingredients from wheat to cocoa to vanilla.

The Brexit reality isn’t going to shift for exporters any time soon, but the FDF is doing its best to get on with things as they stand, publishing a weighty new food and drink export strategy today that contains practical proposals to try to boost the industry.

Some of the ideas are specific, for example relaxing rules on getting samples inside and outside the country, and improving physical UK border infrastructure that the FDF says is “still too vulnerable to sudden shifts in trade volumes and need to be more resilient”. Other proposals are more structural, such as improving the general use of technology and striking trade deals that allow the UK to maintain standards.

On that point, it’s worth noting — as the government prepares a deregulatory agenda alongside cutting civil service numbers — that the industry sees high standards as absolutely essential to the UK’s reputation in the expanding overseas markets that the government is so keen on tapping into.

And, finally, three unmissable Brexit stories

In the last edition of this newsletter I wrote about the stand-off between the EU and the UK over the Horizon Europe science collaboration programme. Well, this week political editor George Parker reports that Boris Johnson’s government is planning to walk away from the €95bn fund and press ahead with “plan B”.

After surviving a confidence vote this week, Boris Johnson has one more chance to show he is the man all evidence suggests he isn’t, writes Robert Shrimsley. He has had three years to prove the great campaigner can be an effective premier. Instead, he has shown himself distracted, chaotic, weak, self-serving, dishonest and addicted to government by headline.

Ahead of voting in French parliamentary elections, which begins on Sunday, my colleagues Akila Quinio and Victor Mallet look at the challenges facing Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble! in gaining an absolute majority in the 577-seat National Assembly — following a surprising show of strength from the far left alliance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

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