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Brussels becomes increasingly jaded with UK’s Brexit drama

Europe Letter: Row over Northern Ireland office eats at EU’s trust as it grapples with coronavirus

The EU’s request for an office in Northern Ireland is a technical issue unnecessarily politicised by Britain. Photograph: John Thys

There’s one word no one wants to hear in Brussels: Brexit. Profound weariness has set in in the European Union capital towards Britain’s project, even as talks stall to try to find an agreement to avoid a damaging lurch to default trade terms at the end of the year.

There’s a sense of deja vu to the rows and speculation in the British press. Lately, the talk has returned to the idea of a “Canada-style deal”, with gossip that British negotiators could demand a copy of the bespoke arrangement tailored to the specifics of the transatlantic trade relationship that took seven years to negotiate.

“I’ve heard talk about a Canadian-style deal for a long time. In fact I think it generated a lot of internal debate in the British government around 2017,” trade commissioner Phil Hogan wearily told The Irish Times when asked about the idea. “It continues to be an issue.”

Part of the jadedness is because the EU is busy dealing with the biggest economic shock in its history and the worst pandemic in a century. These are challenges nobody wanted. Brexit, on the other hand, was voluntary.

Britain chose disruption, and much of the angst and delay associated with this is due to the fact that the government rushed into it without working out the details of what the point of it was in advance.

London’s negotiators seem to have adjusted little to the post-Covid reality. Even as talks were delayed and moved to videoconference due to the pandemic, officials refused to countenance even the idea of extending the current transition period to allow more time for talks.

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Blast from past

“It’s exceptional. Never in the history for such important negotiations with any third country, have we been under such time pressure,” an exasperated chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said after the last round concluded without progress in the most contentious areas.

Tuesday’s headline in the Financial Times – “Northern Ireland tensions threaten to derail Brexit long-term EU-UK deal” – was greeted as a blast from the past.

This new rehearsal of the old theme relates to the EU’s request to set up an office in the North to work with local officials as they implement the complex new arrangements agreed in the withdrawal deal last year to avoid a hard border on the island.

London recently started briefing that such an office would be divisive, and dropping dark warnings about the Belfast Agreement, despite its diplomatic service having agreed to the idea last year.

Until the talk of sovereignty from Westminster, it was a non-issue in the North itself. This is a carbon copy of events that led to the ditching of the so-called backstop, which only became a topic of contention after Conservative Party politicians began talking about it as “annexation”, giving unionists little choice but to oppose it.

“I’m not aware that anyone in Northern Ireland of any persuasion was getting exercised about the EU office,” SDLP Assembly member Matthew O’Toole told The Irish Times. “It was not a battleground in NI before the UK government started publicly suggesting it was unacceptable.”

‘Territory question’

It’s common for international organisations to have global offices, whether the United Nations or the OECD. The EU has over 129 – including, until Brexit became a reality at the end of January, one in Belfast. Even Northern Ireland itself has “Invest NI” offices in Brussels, Dusseldorf, Dubai, Manchester and Dubai. The North has long had bespoke diplomatic arrangements: it has its own office in the United States, the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington DC, which works there to promote “political, economic, educational, and cultural” links. 

“It’s not a territory question, because not even embassies count as territory, even though they are sometimes wrongly portrayed that way in the movies,” said Joris Larik, an expert in EU external relations at Leiden University.

“Imagine it was the other way around,” Larik mused. “Imagine the UK wanted a technical office in Rotterdam or Hamburg or in an important EU member state that they do a lot of trade with, to help out with all the paperwork that is coming their way. I don’t think that would make the headlines, I just can’t imagine anybody would be interested in that. It’s an uninteresting piece of news.”

For the EU, this is another example of a technical issue becoming unnecessarily politicised by Britain, and it’s increasingly a problem when it comes to something that agreement hinges on: trust.

“There are increasing worries on the EU side that the British government isn’t really 100 per cent serious about implementing this . . . and then if you can’t even have an office . . .” Larik trailed off. “The Achilles’ heel of the Northern Ireland protocol is that it relies on the UK to implement it.”

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