Irish Times view on the Northern Ireland protocol: British government waives the rules

Binding agreements cannot be treated as easily discarded inconveniences

The decision by MEPs to postpone ratification of the Brexit future relationship treaty is hardly surprising. Despite the potential damage of not ratifying the deal – the hard Brexit that so many did so much to avoid – it can be asked legitimately why the EU should sign up to an agreement, parts of whose immediate predecessor have now been unilaterally repudiated by the UK on two occasions. What guarantees of respect for obligations would final signature of the provisionally ratified Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) provide?

What has possessed the UK, its prime minister Boris Johnson, and his abrasive, newly-restored chief EU negotiator, Sir David Frost, to take the provocative step of abandoning treaty obligations for Irish Sea checks on goods? And just two months after receiving a diplomatic bloody nose over its Internal Market Bill, which would have given ministers treaty-breaking rights to override or ignore parts of the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement. Despite a pledge to remove the offending clauses, London is at it again, this time not only antagonising European partners but potentially jeopardising the hugely important TCA.

The measures announced by Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis on Tuesday involve a unilateral decision to extend by six months the grace period before health certificates are required for agrifood shipments from Britain to Northern Ireland. Yet such extensions, necessitated by the real threat to supermarket supplies and widely supported as a result, were already close to being agreed in the Joint Committee that deals bilaterally with implementation of the protocol. A deal had been anticipated and the UK also expects to be able, over the next couple of months, to strike a veterinary agreement and other accords to ease the need for checks on animal and plant products, reducing the protocol's practical impact.

Frost insists unconvincingly that the measures are “temporary technical steps” consistent with the UK’s intention to discharge its obligations under the protocol “in good faith”.


What now? EU legal action is unlikely to be speedy enough to effect a reversal before October when the revised grace period is due to expire, although pressure from member states on Ireland to introduce retaliatory Border checks to protect the internal market may also be unlikely to kick in in that timeframe.

But this is no way to do business. The UK cannot expect the harmonious relationship with the EU it professes to seek if it treats binding agreements as easily discarded inconveniences. And London must be disabused of the delusion that the Internal Market Bill fiasco, a march to the top of the hill and ignominiously back down again, was actually a resounding victory that saw the EU successfully cowed by British firmness.