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Desire for US trade deal only way to make sense of Johnson’s stance on protocol

There’s method behind the British prime minister’s apparent Northern Ireland madness

To serious commentators on international relations, UK prime minister Boris Johnson is a figure of fun. It is hard to think of serious interventions on his part. Much more common are apparently meaningless strings of words such as his latest comments on the Northern Ireland protocol, talking of “removing the unnecessary protuberances and barriers that have grown up and getting the barnacles off the thing and sandpapering into shape”.

Which could mean anything.

We judge these words against his previous comments that there wouldn’t be checks, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They suggest someone unaware of the detail of the treaty he signed.

Pure bluster is a possibility, but it is worth considering that there is serious political calculation lying underneath. For all of the actions, and most of the words, of the UK prime minister are completely consistent with having long ago made a choice to prioritise a UK-US trade deal over Northern Ireland.

The UK government was slow to realise the implications for Northern Ireland of Brexit. But that ceased to be the case in 2018 at least for key officials. They knew that the choice would be between some kind of land border on the island of Ireland, a sea border in the Irish Sea, or the alignment of key rules to lessen or eliminate border checks between the UK and the EU.

Preconditions

These options were considered in the context of a UK-US trade deal, which for many key supporters was the ultimate prize of Brexit. Such a deal has always had two preconditions, that the Good Friday Agreement was upheld, and the UK was free to diverge from EU food rules. Chlorinated chicken is not a joke in the US but a fundamental requirement for trade partners.

If we then look specifically at the Johnson administration we find the actions on Northern Ireland to be better predicted by this desire for a US trade deal than any other factor. It inherited from Theresa May’s Government a commitment to regulatory alignment with the EU, which would not have allowed divergence sufficient for the US. This was not acceptable.

At first the Johnson team investigated “alternative arrangements” for a land border, but these lacked serious credibility and, in the eyes of the EU and US, threatened to lead to a breach of the GFA. Interestingly these have not seriously been revived as an option since October 2018.

The idea of the sea border was then revived via the Northern Ireland protocol, which allowed Great Britain at least to have the divergence needed to secure a US trade deal. Johnson was immediately told by unionists that this was unacceptable, and indeed not one Northern Ireland MP ever voted for the protocol or the subsequent Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Johnson’s response to criticism of his deal has actually been very consistent. He has denied it means checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, even if the latter still has to follow EU rules, blamed the EU for any interpretation that involves checks, and refused to do anything to ease them when given the choice. He has basically refused to engage seriously while claiming sympathy for the unionists.

In negotiations with the EU in 2020 the UK side made regulatory sovereignty their top ask, and thus, almost uniquely in a modern trade agreement, there is no easing of checks of food and drink products. Under the terms of the protocol it was widely known that this would impact Britain to Northern Ireland movements.

In fact, and surely not coincidentally, the only country that would require the UK to diverge from EU food rules to secure a trade deal is the US. Interestingly even under severe pressure from UK farmers the Johnson administration has refused to fully address the question of whether all US food will, in the future, be allowed into the country.

In late 2020 there was a view among some staunch Brexiteers close to Johnson that he should walk away from talks with the EU and break the Withdrawal Agreement, at the time he threatened to use the UK Internal Market Bill to override the protocol. He did not. Operating principles and the TCA were instead agreed with the EU.

Holding pattern

There has been renewed talk in 2021 of the UK walking away from the protocol, or agreeing some regulatory alignment with the EU to reduce checks. Neither has happened.

Instead we seem to be in a holding pattern of the UK loosely implementing checks while blaming the EU or the former prime minister for having to do so. This is playing well to supporters who don’t really understand borders and are inclined to always blame the EU.

Obviously it is leading to greater tensions in Northern Ireland, but Johnson’s lack of interest there was best summarised by sacking the most popular secretary of state for Northern Ireland many years. It would be in line with the idea of a calculating rather than blustering prime minister for him to think any worsening of problems can be blamed on the EU.

Johnson’s goal is presumably to go into the next UK election with a US trade deal having proved that Brexit worked. Just as he went into the last with an EU deal. It might be appallingly cynical and extremely risky to peace, but that seems consistent with his character, and indeed the Conservative Party. Bluster disguising ruthlessness has often been their winning combination.

The actions of unionists, the EU and indeed the US may cause problems for him. But the chances of success shouldn’t be dismissed. Johnson thinks it is working so far.

David Henig is director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the thinktank ECIPE

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