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Strains over the special post-Brexit arrangements agreed for Northern Ireland have become a microcosm of everything Britain finds hard to accept about the EU — and that the EU struggles to recognise about Britain. The UK insists it is offering creative solutions to implementing the so-called Northern Ireland protocol but — as Lord David Frost, UK Brexit minister, put it in the Financial Times — the EU is adopting a “legally purist” approach. The EU says it is ready to be flexible, but Britain’s refusal to accept its obligations has destroyed trust. Yet the situation on the ground is fragile. As the two sides meet this week — and US president Joe Biden prepares to weigh in — all have an obligation to show pragmatism and reduce the tensions.
The protocol was intended to avoid creation of a “hard” border between the north and the Irish Republic, by in effect keeping Northern Ireland within the EU customs union and single market. That led to a regulatory border between Britain and the province, which has caused trade frictions and shortages of some goods — angering unionists who see it as a dilution of the province’s UK links and identity. The unhappiness has contributed to street violence, and to the ousting of Arlene Foster as first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party.
Frost says Britain “underestimated the effect of the protocol” on goods movements. His comment seems disingenuous, though it is likely that Prime Minister Boris Johnson underrated the implications of the deal he first sketched out with his Irish counterpart under acute pressure to reach an EU exit agreement. Either way, it is typical of Johnson’s political approach: find a fix that works today, and worry about the consequences tomorrow. Officials were well aware of the difficulties a “border in the Irish Sea” could pose; ex-premier Theresa May’s ill-fated withdrawal agreement, with its “backstop” to keep all of the UK in the customs union, specifically aimed to avoid it.
Johnson’s denials of the reality of what he signed up to have ceded some moral high ground to the EU. Brussels is justifiably concerned to protect the integrity of the EU single market. UK officials, however, are frustrated by an excessively process-driven, “take it or leave it” approach from Brussels, and not only on the Northern Ireland issue. Indeed, there are more ways of reaching a deal over food or veterinary standards, which could ease difficulties over the protocol, than Britain simply adopting EU rules.
As a guarantor of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, it is right for the US to become involved. The White House has signalled Biden will meet Johnson before this week’s G7 summit to express support for the protocol, and warn that UK hopes for a US trade deal could be jeopardised unless the situation is resolved. The intervention of the US president, who has not been sympathetic to Britain on this issue, should involve pressure on Johnson. But if his contribution is to have most effect, he should also urge Brussels to find compromise.
This imbroglio is not for the US to solve, but the protagonists. Johnson should make a categorical commitment to stand by the protocol, to boost trust and counter EU concerns he is ready to renege on the exit deal. If a breakthrough can be achieved, the prime minister should be ready to use whatever leverage he retains to press the DUP to make it work. With safeguarding the Northern Ireland peace at stake, a solution involving a light-touch border regime that minimises disruption from regulatory checks should not be beyond the wit of negotiators on both sides.
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This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/4538945e-959d-4316-bda1-d70d6c691705