Boris Johnson won the 2019 general election by promising to “get Brexit done”. Like all his other promises, this was broken.
Last week Lord Frost, the ex-whisky lobbyist who is now Johnson’s Brexit minister, threatened a new confrontation by demanding the European Union (EU) tear up the Northern Ireland protocol.
Agreed on in October 2019 alongside the broader withdrawal treaty between Britain and the EU, the protocol reflects how both sides used the north of Ireland as a pawn in their manoeuvres. Brussels and London proclaimed their commitment to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the latest war between Irish Republicans and the British state.
This requires that the border between the Six Counties in the north and the southern Irish state stays open.
But the EU simultaneously insisted on customs controls between the United Kingdom and the EU after Brexit to preserve the integrity of the European Single Market.
Its aim was to stop British firms undercutting those based in the EU.
So for Brussels there had to be both no border in Ireland and a border between the UK and the EU.
Where did this leave Northern Ireland? It’s part of Ireland—this may seem obvious, but it isn’t to the Loyalist parties in the north.
The ultra-Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party, loudly encouraged by Tory Brexiteers, denounced Brussels for undermining the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But, after becoming prime minister, and desperate to make a deal with Brussels, Johnson betrayed the DUP by signing the protocol.
This keeps Northern Ireland in the Single European Market. The price of the Irish border staying open is that EU customs regulations now apply to trade between the Six Counties and the rest of the UK.
The result has been much economic disruption and intense fury in the Loyalist camp. Johnson and Frost tried to deal with this by unilaterally delaying the implementation of various parts of the protocol. The EU reacted by threatening to take Britain to court.
Now Frost is demanding that the EU agree fundamentally to rewrite the protocol. He repeated the threat that, if it doesn’t, the British government will exercise its right under article 16 of the protocol to take “safeguard measures”—effectively suspending its operation.
The European Commission responded cleverly, by announcing its own package to reform the protocol.
As the analyst Mujtaba Rahman said, this “put the British government in a bind” by going “much further than [it] was expecting”. The Commission promised “to scrap half the paperwork for goods going from Great Britain to supermarkets in Northern Ireland and remove 80 percent of border checks on animals and plants.”
As Rahman says, this faces Johnson with “a huge dilemma”. If he accepts these concessions, he risks being denounced by the DUP and his own backbenchers for caving into Brussels. But if he rejects the offer and invokes article 16, there is a good chance the EU will hit back hard.
The Financial Times reported last week that France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain lobbied Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic to draft contingency plans for trade war with Britain. The sticking point could be Frost’s demand that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) no longer has any role in applying the protocol.
The ECJ is loathed by the Tory right, but fetishised by the EU as the guarantor of the “rules-governed” Single Market. One of the few things Johnson really seems to care about is reasserting British sovereignty against the EU. But provoking a trade war over a largely symbolic issue may be too much even for him.
Brussels slapping tariffs on UK exports and intensifying customs checks would be a severe blow to a British economy already reeling from shortages. Business anger over the damage caused by Johnson’s Brexit would increase. So reason suggests he will compromise. But experience suggests that the Brexit mess will get worse.