Crisis in Ukraine reveals cracks in Ireland-UK relationship

Europe Letter: London hopes for new dawn of ‘understanding’ to ease protocol rollout

Could the Ukraine crisis cause a rapprochement between the European Union and the United Kingdom after years of embittered relations due to the Brexit vote and the tortuous talks of its aftermath?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine revealed certain facts about security and defence and created an imperative for the West to appear unified, causing day-to-day disputes to recede, including between London and Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol.

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss was invited to an emergency council of EU foreign affairs ministers on the Ukraine crisis this month, in what the British government hoped signalled a fresh start in relations.

Many European leaders are distrustful of Johnson personally and would be reluctant to give him an opportunity for political posturing

EU and UK officials have been co-ordinating to draw up matching sanctions, including in talks with Washington held in the secure video-conferencing facilities of the British and Canadian Brussels embassies.

Since the war began, British prime minister Boris Johnson has visited Estonia and Poland, both Nato members who highly value strong relations with the UK for defence purposes. It was part of an effort by the alliance to emphasise its unity and commitment to joint defence in a bid to deter Russia from any further advance.

But the limits of the reconciliation were apparent when Johnson was not invited to a European Council of national leaders last week, despite being present in Brussels for G7 and Nato meetings.

Many European leaders are distrustful of Johnson personally and would be reluctant to give him an opportunity for political posturing or simply to make a scene, especially as it would risk eating into their time with the other summit visitor, US president Joe Biden.

Any hopes to attend the summit would not have been helped by a speech by Johnson to his Conservative Party conference in the days prior that appeared to compare Ukraine’s fight against invasion to the Brexit vote, repeating a characterisation of the EU as an authoritarian imposition rather than something Britain was voluntarily a member of, on equal standing with the 27 other states.

The British government was unhappy with Ireland's decision to open its doors to Ukrainian refugees

The crisis has revealed cracks in the Dublin-London relationship too.

The British government was unhappy with Ireland’s decision to open its doors to Ukrainian refugees by first waiving visas and then joining the EU as a whole in granting them blanket temporary protection, which comes with residence and other rights.

This is because of security concerns: they expect that a certain number of people will falsely claim to be Ukrainian refugees, and among those will be some Russian operatives.

The Common Travel Area means any who go to Ireland can easily enter Britain, which is part of the context to why a requirement for non-British and non-Irish nationals to electronically register before crossing the Border into Northern Ireland from the Republic was announced last week.

The British government also felt liberated to announce this without the usual consultation and co-ordination with the Irish Government, raising the ire of Dublin, because they felt they had been insufficiently consulted on the Ukrainian refugees policy in turn.

At the moment, the EU side is only too happy to remain silent on the Northern Ireland protocol to avoid becoming a feature of the campaign for the Northern Ireland Assembly election on May 5th.

Brussels proposed changes it said would drastically reduce bureaucracy and the number of checks on goods, but London insists it does not go far enough

But the British are keen to offer some pre-election encouragement to the camps in Northern Ireland who acquiesce to some form of protocol, to show that it will be workable and not overly onerous.

But talks between the sides remain frozen. The EU was disappointed to get no movement from London in return for announcing a change to its law to facilitate the flow of medicines late last year. Brussels proposed changes it said would drastically reduce bureaucracy and the number of checks on goods, but London insists it does not go far enough.

EU states remain determined to protect their markets from the risks of unchecked products entering, and have no inclination to offer advantages to a non-member state. They recall that not only was the protocol requested and negotiated by Johnson, but that it was ratified by parliament and held up as a triumph in an election campaign that won him a big majority.

This is the result of the Brexit you wanted, Brussels says: the protocol is designed to accommodate your choice, and patch up its regrettable results.

The past is the past, replies the British government. Never mind that the Democratic Unionist Party campaigned for Brexit and rejected a solution that would have prevented any Irish Sea checks.

The current reality is what it is, they say: unionists in Northern Ireland are unhappy with the protocol, and if not succoured, they darkly warn, loyalists could turn violent.

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