Promising to "fix" the Northern Ireland protocol, not to repudiate it, by unilaterally amending some of its provisions, British foreign secretary Liz Truss told the House of Commons yesterday that proceeding with a Bill to override parts of the protocol was "consistent with our obligations under international law". But tearing up part of an international agreement, signed willingly by prime minister Boris Johnson, who had described the deal with the EU in triumphant terms, is a breach of international law and a reneging on solemn, binding commitments.
Johnson now claims that he signed up under pressure and in the expectation that the EU would never require the protocol's full, detailed implementation. And he now insists that saving the Belfast Agreement must trump the protocol. It is a rationale based entirely, however, on privileging a minority unionist veto as the only valid expression of "consent", a complete, deliberate misreading of the agreement. And one designed largely to placate his right-wing nationalist backbench MPs.
Not surprisingly, yesterday’s promise of future legislation – it could take over a year to pass through the parliament – will not placate the DUP, whose leader Jeffrey Donaldson insists he must have “action” before his party returns to the executive. All he conceded yesterday was a “graduated” return – likely to mean the party may re-engage with the Assembly step-by-step, as the Bill goes through Westminster. It implies there is no prospect of the DUP reassuming a ministerial role for the foreseeable future.
The specifics of the Truss proposals are also wearily familiar – the reliance on red and green customs channels on the Irish Sea to distinguish between goods, free of controls, destined only for the North, and those, strictly controlled, bound for the South, is the essence of the UK’s long-touted “trusted trader” scheme. That flag has been run up and down the flagpole repeatedly through the entire Brexit negotiating process, and London has consistently failed to demonstrate plausibly how it would work in practice. Not least because it relies on a degree of trust between governments and the EU, and between those and businesses which manifestly does not exist and which Johnson’s latest ploy will undermine further.
The Truss Bill will also target the Court of Justice of the EU and give the UK VAT-varying powers in the North – yet if it is to remain a full part of the EU single market and its tax regime, there is no way the union can accept such dismantling of its judicial order.
Johnson says he wants to negotiate a deal with the EU and that this Bill is only insurance. But he is wrong to regard this gun to the head of negotiators as likely to sway capitals. This is only a road to the trade war he professes to wish to avoid.