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Has EU unity on the NI Protocol weakened because of Ukraine war?

Key British figures convinced Russia’s invasion will push EU members to keep London happy

A belief in Westminster that Britain’s renewed importance in terms of defence will end European Union unity on the Northern Ireland Protocol and produce leniency towards London is misplaced, discussions with diplomats suggest.

Britain recently signed mutual security pacts with Sweden and Finland and has had a key role in arming Ukraine, and figures in the British administration and civil service have become convinced that Russia’s invasion will make Helsinki, Stockholm, Vilnius and Warsaw more keen to keep London happy than to insist on implementation of the 2019 deal.

This theory has been around before. It used to be known as "German carmakers" – the wishful thinking during the Brexit negotiations that Britain's economic importance would win it unhindered access to the Single Market without having to follow the rules.

It disregards that Russia’s invasion has reinforced the importance of the rule of law and respect for international agreements, particularly for the small countries that make up the majority of the EU, and rely on this world order for their protection against larger, more powerful neighbours.

It also overlooks the goodwill cost of asking EU states to yet again consider a matter they consider to be closed, and closed at the cost of many years of negotiations and consideration for Britain’s evolving demands.

With the latest interventions, London is seen to have instigated unnecessary drama at a time when other matters are more pressing, muddying a highly-prized image of Western unity.

EU unified

Member states approached by The Irish Times said their support for the implementation of the Protocol was unchanged and that the EU was unified on this.

“Within the EU, there is great unity and support for the work led by the European Commission, to try to solve any outstanding issues with the Protocol amicably together in talks, as offered by the EU,” one diplomat from a concerned member state said.

“Threats of unilateral action have no place in such talks.”

The sentiment was echoed by European Council chief Charles Michel, who wrote following a phone call with Taoiseach Micheál Martin that unilateral action by Britain was “clearly not welcome, all the more so in these difficult geopolitical times”.

The predominance of the war and urgency of co-ordinating the EU response to it has left little bandwidth for discussion of the Protocol and the fallout of Northern Ireland’s election. But the issue has been delegated rather than ignored.

Ireland continues to be consulted by other EU member states as an authority on the Protocol and an interpreter of the latest developments.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was asked about it when he breakfasted with counterparts from the eight EU countries also ruled by parties of Fine Gael’s European People’s Party political group on Monday, before they all joined a meeting of foreign ministers about the war.

“Certainly, the feedback I’m getting is that the EU is rock solid on this issue,” he told journalists afterwards.

There is no shortage of those in Brussels who suspect the latest briefings from London are yet again the outworking of internal Conservative party power struggles, with foreign secretary and former Remainer Liz Truss keen to burnish her Brexity credentials ahead of any leadership election.

In this context, the EU is unlikely to suddenly produce a big concession to try to make the problem go away.

From the EU perspective, it has already made concessions anyway, and these did not work.

It offered a series of proposals in October to cut the burden of checks and declarations that could arguably be seen as a climbdown. Far from mollifying the British government, this has been taken up as evidence by London that concessions are possible, and more must be extracted.

In his Belfast Telegraph op-ed on Monday, Mr Johnson mentioned “fast availability of medicines” as a problem, as if a change to EU law introduced last month to make an exception for Northern Ireland and ensure the normal flow drugs had never happened.

The EU has made clear that it is prepared to offer more to Britain – but only in the context of constructive joint negotiations.

Brinkmanship will drive it in the other direction, convincing EU states that London can’t be trusted to implement the agreement in good faith, and that strict implementation – and potentially redress of the breach of a treaty – need to be enforced.