There was significant dismay in Brussels at London’s decision to re-ignite conflict over the Northern Ireland protocol this week, which is seen as damaging relations that had begun to normalise due to co-operation over Ukraine after years of acrimony.
They’ve seen it all before: threats, the inconsistency in messages that change from one day to the next, the strident statements, even the introduction of a bill as a way to change an international treaty in domestic law, which happened last year.
This time however, it’s coming during a major war on the European continent at a time when Western unity is seen as highly important.
A British tabloid recently carried the headline “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” to dismiss criticism of prime minister Boris Johnson’s attendance at parties during Covid-19 restrictions. The same phrase characterises the reaction the Protocol latest in Brussels.
It’s not that the European Union is deaf to the concerns about the Protocol in Northern Ireland and its political sensitivities. It’s more that London is not believed to be representing these concerns in good faith.
If the bill is passed, the EU may consider London to have breached its side of an international treaty
The statement from foreign secretary Liz Truss ignores that a majority of MLAs just elected support the implementation of the Protocol and the evidence that it is having a positive economic effect.
The complaints it raises are not confined to those of the Democratic Unionist Party and Northern Irish business, which largely revolve around the pragmatic implementation of checks and paperwork. London is seen to have tacked on sundry issues it knows the EU cannot agree to, such as removing the role of the European Court of Justice, something with little public purchase in Northern Ireland.
This fact, in addition to the aggressive manner in which the demands have been presented, suggests to EU member states and the European Commission that the British government may not even be seeking a solution, as it claims, but may be interested in conflict for its own sake for political reasons - to distract from domestic troubles, or as an outworking of rivalries within the Conservative Party.
The timing is unfortunate, because now is the moment when the EU was most ready to agree to a lighter-touch implementation of the Protocol. Over the year since its implementation, the European Commission has come to learn much more about the nature of trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Its officials are believed to have identified ways to achieve a minimalistic implementation of the Protocol, relying on remote monitoring through automatic reporting of customs data in real time.
The experience of the EU is that London has not been willing to listen to discuss this, and that past concessions have not worked to mollify British demands – instead, they seem to have encouraged them to ask for more.
The damage to trust sadly may make it more difficult to offer solutions that would have been available if the British government had asked nicely.
If the British government goes ahead and introduces a bill, the EU can be expected to restart infringement proceedings that seek legal address to a breach of an agreed treaty.
If the bill is passed, the EU may consider London to have breached its side of an international treaty, and therefore to be free to no longer uphold its side of the deal: namely, to no longer allow British products to enter the Single Market tariff-free.
They hope it won’t come to that. The EU preference is that the problem goes away, and that London chooses not to pursue this path any further and returns to the table to find an agreed solution.