EU response on NI protocol will depend on UK’s true intentions

Paul Gillespie: Bloc's role as guarantor of Belfast Agreement is now explicit

Boris Johnson’s call for a freezing of protocol implementation while an effective renegotiation of it is sought is seen as bad faith. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s call for a freezing of protocol implementation while an effective renegotiation of it is sought is seen as bad faith. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

 

Brexit has deepened Ireland’s role in the European Union because defending the integrity of its single market has become intimately linked to solidarity with Ireland as the member state most directly affected by the United Kingdom’s departure.

This outcome has surprised hard Brexiteers. They expected that member states’ bilateral trade interests with the UK, such as German car exports to the UK, would override more multilateral interests like the single market. They see Brexit heralding disintegration rather than strengthening the EU27.

Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings in a tweet this week explained how he thought Emmanuel Macron would ditch Ireland’s membership of the single market to reach a deal. That would have made the protocol on Northern Ireland contained in the EU-UK withdrawal treaty, with its border in the Irish Sea, unnecessary, “cos we’d have refused ANY checks anywhere and Ireland wd not have dared build anything either”. He agreed this would have been “messy” but worth the trouble to get their way. He did not factor in the resulting international isolation and economic disruption for Britain.

Guarantors demand reciprocal trust in partnerships as part of the international order, one of the necessary conditions for maintaining political co-operation – in Ireland and elsewhere

In fact, EU member states – and the European Commission they mandated in the Brexit negotiations – found their own unity was strongly reinforced as they encountered such British attitudes. The linkage forged by Irish diplomacy between the single market issue and an open border (especially with Angela Merkel in the months following the 2016 Brexit referendum, as shown in this week’s Irish Times series) endured and deepened.

That showed up in the EU’s insistence on dealing with the Irish issue along with citizenship and financial ones, in the first stage of the negotiations. It is reflected in the 2017 European Council decision that a united Ireland would have automatic EU membership without entry talks.

Most importantly, it is re-elected in the overall purpose of the Northern Ireland protocol: “to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, to maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South co-operation, to avoid a hard border and to protect the 1998 agreement in all its dimensions.”

This makes the EU an international guarantor of the Belfast Agreement, adding greatly to its stature as an international treaty. Such an outcome is implicit in the various ways common membership of the EEC/EU from the 1970s helped Irish and British political elites get to know one another better in this multilateral setting, which fed back into their work together on the peace process, including with EU funds.

But the EU role is understated in that 1998 agreement and is only now more fully understood, including by EU officials, many of whom are on a learning curve about the complexities at play here.

This delicate line between procedural trust willing to seek out compromise and more risky high politics will be tested out in the forthcoming EU-UK talks

Guarantors demand reciprocal trust in partnerships as part of the international order, one of the necessary conditions for maintaining political co-operation – in Ireland and elsewhere. That is not on view from UK negotiators in the latest exchanges. Johnson and David Frost say they did not fully understand the effects an Irish Sea border to protect the single market would have on British trade with Northern Ireland – even though these were fully spelled out in two briefing documents at the time. Their threats to breach the agreement are seen as bad faith. Their call for a freezing of protocol implementation while an effective renegotiation of it is sought is seen in the same way.

One thread of discussion between the more technocratic European Commission, which is willing to explore possible further flexible and imaginative solutions to the protocol problems, and the more political European Council, is whether the latest UK position is an effort to upend the agreement for domestic political reasons. In that case more blunt tactics would be called for, including trade sanctions or even reversion to World Trade Organisation conditions.

That would be a disaster for Ireland, necessitating hard border controls. Those fearful of such an outcome believe Irish support for the EU is wide but not deep. They worry that the Government has not more actively explained and advocated the benefits of the single market for Ireland sufficient to withstand such pressure. Nor have the real potential manufacturing and trading benefits for Northern Ireland of being in both the EU and UK market for goods been adequately explained, even if business and public opinion there are beginning to understand them better.

This delicate line between procedural trust willing to seek out compromise and more risky high politics will be tested out in the forthcoming EU-UK talks.

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