The EU has made a huge concession to the UK by offering dramatic changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. Yet there’s still much to suggest that it still won’t be enough to satisfy Boris Johnson.
A day before European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic announced the new proposals, UK Brexit Minister David Frost said anything short of a complete rewrite of the protocol could lead to the UK triggering Article 16, an exit mechanism.
That in turn could lead to the ripping up of the UK’s post-Brexit deal with the EU. The next obvious step after that would be a trade war.
The EU must not be cowed by that prospect. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pushed his luck to extreme limits. If his hard-Brexit government continues to play games, the EU needs to call it out and say enough is enough.
The protocol distraction
Johnson’s government has no credibility when it comes to Northern Ireland. In the runup to the Brexit vote in 2016, it was barely mentioned by the Vote Leave campaign.
When the issue dominated post-Brexit negotiations, UK politicians were confused and dumbfounded. Johnson himself displayed staggering ignorance, comparing its border with Ireland to that of the borders of different boroughs in the city of London.
When Theresa May was prime minister and Johnson was jockeying to take her position, he manipulated the willing fools of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by offering to be their savior.
Yet, when he reached agreement with the Irish government in 2019 on what would become the protocol, he signed up to a deal that placed a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. That was far more objectionable to unionists than what May had proposed and which Johnson had theatrically rejected.
Yet it’s doubtful that he ever intended on sticking to the deal. The consequences of Brexit are beginning to bite in Britain. Severe labor shortages and a major fuel crisis are wreaking havoc. In the face of that, making the protocol the bridgehead of an ongoing “battle” with the EU is a useful diversionary tactic. Portraying the EU as bureaucratic and incapable of compromise plays well with voters.
Crucially, it keeps the EU in the role of scapegoat. So no matter how bad the post-Brexit landscape looks, the problem is always the EU, never Brexit itself.
For Johnson’s government, the current row has almost nothing to do with Northern Ireland. Officials have shown repeatedly that they neither understand nor care about Northern Ireland and how Brexit has disturbed the delicate balances there.
They also repeatedly make the mistake of treating hard-line unionism as the only political view in Northern Ireland, ignoring the vast majority who do not support the DUP and showing open contempt for the region’s large Irish nationalist population.
Time to make the truth hurt
The EU has made errors too, the worst of which was the appalling decision to trigger Article 16 during the row earlier this year on vaccines, a decision that was immediately revoked after the Irish government’s horrified reaction.
Then there’s the protocol itself. The EU’s willingness to change it so much is an acceptance that it is flawed, although it has to be hammered home that the UK government has made almost no effort to make it work.
Still, Sefcovic has done something that Johnson and company have failed to: engage with the people in Northern Ireland. The proposed changes to ease the flow of goods by cutting costs and red tape are based on extensive consultation and have been broadly welcomed by business leaders there.
Yet Frost and Johnson continue to push irrelevant issues such as the role of the European Court of Justice’s, whose oversight they object to. That is essential to Northern Ireland remaining in the single market and is of no consequence to businesses operating there.
The EU cannot afford any more concessions. If it does, Ireland’s place in the single market would be under threat. That would be fatal for the bloc’s reputation as protector of its members’ interests.
The EU must not continue to enable a UK government that has proven itself erratic, untrustworthy and duplicitous. If it does so, it will give succor to crooks all over Europe at a time when they need little encouragement.
The problem is not the protocol, not the EU, not Ireland. It is Brexit. Those who pushed the vote will never admit that, but the EU cannot keep making it easier for them to deny reality.