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Northern Ireland election sets stage for more protocol brinkmanship

Europe Letter: Spoils of northern elections claimed by every facet of post-Brexit debate

The result of Northern Ireland’s election has given each side in the disagreement over its post-Brexit arrangements an argument in support of their case.

The European Union can accurately point to the fact that a majority of the electorate backed candidates who favour making the protocol work, rather than getting rid of it.

Irish politicians can take the historic emergence of Sinn Féin as the largest party, and of the middle-ground Alliance as the third force in Stormont, to state that northern politics has fundamentally changed and that the wishes of unionism can no longer reign supreme.

The Democratic Unionist Party can say, despite the fall in its vote share, that it remains the biggest party of unionism and should be seen as an authoritative voice in representing the community's views.


Those who are intrinsically opposed to the protocol can point to the rise in votes for the Traditional Unionist Voice party to argue that wholesale change is needed to quell the disquiet.

The British government will doubtless maintain its position that, regardless of the views of the overall majority in Northern Ireland and their overall rejection of Brexit, the fact that opposition to the protocol is important to one community means that, under the logic of consent and powersharing, their concerns must be acted upon.

Now that the DUP has made a "win" on the protocol the price of re-entering powersharing and allowing an executive to be established in Stormont, does Brussels have something to offer them?

The answer is probably yes: the European Commission can likely go further than the proposals it has already laid out in talks with British officials as a way of reducing the burden of bureaucracy and checks.

More generous option

But to unlock this more generous option, London needs to meet the EU halfway, in particular by implementing aspects of the arrangements that were already agreed and thereby demonstrating that it will actually abide by whatever new tweaks can be produced.

The experience of the European Commission in talks last year was that it made an offer, by proposing how checks and paperwork could be reduced and EU rules changed to allow the free flow of medicines, but that this was not met by similar goodwill from London.

And it is ultimately London that will be the EU’s counterpart in any talks, and which has the responsibility of interpreting the results of the election into policy requests.

Unfortunately, the hardline position so far indicated by foreign secretary Liz Truss risks making concessions from the EU less likely.

There is a very low level of trust in the current British administration on the Continent

On Wednesday, Truss disparaged the proposals that are already on the table and warned that her government “will not shy away from taking action”, alluding to the possibility of unilaterally passing a Bill in domestic law to try to override an international treaty.

This would likely lead to the EU restarting its legal proceedings against Britain, which were paused last summer to give talks a chance, which ultimately carry the prospect of serious economic harm through the imposition of EU tariffs on British goods.

It’s the opposite of the kind of constructive engagement hoped for in a statement issued by the European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic on Tuesday, which spoke of aspirations for a “positive and stable relationship” and insisted “joint solutions to legitimate practical issues . . . can be found” with sufficient political will.

Electoral interests

There is a very low level of trust in the current British administration on the Continent, and a belief that prime minister Boris Johnson will ultimately take whatever course he deems to best serve his electoral interests, above longer-term interests such as the relationship with his country's closest trading partner.

The British government has nurtured hopes that the war in Ukraine will fix the UK-EU relationship by making western unity a stronger imperative than the protection of the single market.

The desire for good relations is mutual, but this does not translate into an inclination towards leniency and granting favours to Johnson when this is directly against the interests of the EU. Indeed, the threat from Truss is seen as an unwelcome return to the old Brexit brinkmanship that is all the more serious and unwelcome now that it risks undermining the image of unity the West has projected towards Moscow.

If there were any doubts, they should be quashed by the words of German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Belgian prime minister Alexander de Croo in a joint press conference on Tuesday evening.

“No one should override or break the rules we have agreed upon together,” Scholz said. Asked about London’s idea of unilateral action to undermine the Protocol, de Croo said: “Our message is very clear: don’t touch it. That’s something we agreed on.”