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Brexit back with a bang as story sends shockwaves

Mystery is how UK can renege on deal with Ireland when keen to strike others globally

Brexit is back, and back with a bang.

Of course, talk to anyone in the Government who is involved in the process, and they’ll tell you that it never went away in the first place.

In any event, it's clear that the issue is set to dominate the coming political term, as negotiations between the British government and the European Union on a new trade agreement approach their decisive stage.

Those paying attention – including senior officials in Dublin, London and Brussels – know that the outlook for a deal, even a "bare bones" trade deal, is not exactly rosy.


The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier – still in his post despite repeated predictions from parts of the British press that he would be moved – has been warning about the lack of progress since talks stuttered into motion before the summer. A no-deal outcome, after which many goods traded between the UK and the EU would be subject to crippling tariffs, looks more likely now than perhaps at any stage since the process began.

But even against this gloomy background, the Financial Times story on Sunday night was a bombshell which sent shockwaves around Europe. EU and Irish officials are used to both to British brinkmanship and to Downing Street's tendency to use the media to roll the pitch in advance of talks.

But the FT story – which suggested Britain would introduce domestic legislation to override the commitments it made in the withdrawal treaty less than a year ago – was taking things to a new level.

Dublin scepticism

If the British were prepared to walk away from the last treaty they signed, how could they think that the EU – or anyone else for that matter – would be prepared to sign a new trade agreement with them?

One Irish official wondered how a country that was so keen to made trade deals all over the world could casually renege on a treaty with its nearest neighbour and largest trading partner. This was also the reaction of many independent British trade experts to the story.

Dublin’s initial reaction was scepticism that the UK would actually go through with the legislation as described. “Let’s see what the detail is,” said one senior official in Dublin. “There are versions of this that are at the more benign end of the scale.”

Discussions between the two sides about how the Irish protocol would work have been continuing below the radar. But progress has been glacial. To say there appears to a lack of urgency on all this is an understatement.

London lens

And while Dublin understandably views the issue through the lens of how it affects the North and the Border, that is not the central British focus at all.

The fact Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster only this weekend signalled she would work to implement the protocol only adds to the sense that the North is an afterthought for the British government.

State aid – and the ability of the British government to back companies it wants, especially in the tech, bio and AI fields – is likely much more central to the concerns of the Johnson administration.

While the officials response was “Don’t panic, folks”, officials in Dublin said they would seek explanations and reassurances from the British government.

Others said they would wait and see what was in the legislation when it was published later this week.

Officials expect a bumpy few weeks ahead. “We expected a messy September,” says one source. Here we go.