Pat Leahy: Brexit goes back to the future

A trade war is all but inevitable if Britain triggers article 16, according to insiders

For Brussels and Dublin, recourse by the British to article 16 will change things fundamentally from the EU’s perspective. But will London opt to trigger this element of the NI protocol?

For Brussels and Dublin, recourse by the British to article 16 will change things fundamentally from the EU’s perspective. But will London opt to trigger this element of the NI protocol?

 

The Government is readying itself for a very difficult period in Anglo-Irish relations and a further deterioration in the already fraught situation between the European Union and United Kingdom.

It is universally expected in Dublin that the British government will trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, suspending its operations, in the near future. That view is widely shared in Brussels. UK sources do not demur, even if they downplay the significance of the move.

Nobody is buying that in Dublin or Brussels, where the triggering will be taken as final and irrevocable proof that British prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration does not negotiate in good faith, and cannot be trusted. Brexit is going back to the future.

We are now in the worst period of Dublin-London relations since then prime minister Margaret Thatcher and taoisech Charles Haughey glowered at one another in the 1980s. Things have deteriorated in recent months. Both Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Taoiseach Micheál Martin have tried to cultivate personal relationships with Johnson. Senior officials now wonder if there is any point in this. “I have never heard such gloom about it all,” one senior figure tells me. “It’s very, very, very dark.”

The alarm bells rang in Dublin on Tuesday evening when the Financial Times posted a story that reported the British government had sought external legal advice on the protocol, taking the unusual step of going outside its own legal advisers whose approach may have been more cautious.

In the Dáil, the Taoiseach  made his most explicit and direct statement on the matter yet

This was taken as a sign triggering article 16 was imminent. The working assumption in recent times had been that it was likely once Cop26 was out of the way, but now officials wondered if the timetable had been moved up.

They fretted it could happen within a few days.

In the Dáil, Martin made his most explicit and direct statement on the matter yet, warning that triggering article 16 “would be irresponsible, it would be unwise and it would be reckless”. There would be, he said, “far-reaching implications for the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. I think it would also have implications for relationship between the United Kingdom government and the Irish Government.” This is as blunt a warning as you’re likely to see.

So what happens if and when article 16 is triggered? At one level, not all that much. A month’s notice is required under the treaty to invoke the provision. And article 16 is not, despite what some people appear to believe, a magic wand that causes the protocol to disappear. Instead, a new stage of consultation and arbitration commences. Now that you have met article 16, it’s time to meet our new friend, annex 7, which lays out the process, its requirements and so on. As part of those processes, the agreement allows for “rebalancing” acts by the EU, which could involve the imposition of some tariffs on UK goods, say officials.

But for Brussels and Dublin, triggering the article – after the public and private appeals, after the proposals made by European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, which meet an awful lot of the practical concerns of unionists and the British (“they are refusing to take yes for an answer,” one senior official tells me) and with the consequences spelled out in the advance – will change things fundamentally from the EU’s perspective.

There is a complete disconnect between the way the British see the move and the way Brussels sees it. As Mujtaba Rahman, one of the best analysts of EU-UK hostilities put it last week, the British see this as a limited tactical move; the EU will see it as a nuclear strike.

It would mean that 2022 sees a rerun of the countdown to a no-deal Brexit that we saw previously

The EU may take the view that the British are in open breach of the EU-UK agreement and give notice that it intends to suspend the entire trade and co-operation pact. Because that requires a year’s notice, it would mean that 2022 sees a rerun of the countdown to a no-deal Brexit that we saw previously, with the EU and UK wrestling with each other to reach an agreement to avoid such an outcome, and Northern Ireland again the sticking point.

It would be different this time, though. There would be basically zero trust on the EU side, making any new deal that much harder. How could you make an agreement with someone who has walked away from a deal you made with them two years ago?

“There will definitely be some sort of trade war between the EU and the UK,” a sources familiar with discussions on the matter at the highest levels of Government here tells me. Another person in similar position says “there will 100 per cent be a trade war. Nobody in Brussels believes otherwise.” Later, he adds: “And we will be stuck in the middle.”

The twin concerns in Government Buildings will be the effect of all this on the situation on the ground in the North – where protests against the protocol turned ugly this week – and the need to protect Ireland’s place in the single market.

As a general principle when trying to figure all this out, we should be careful about putting on the green jersey or reflexively taking the side of our own country. We see enough cheerleading masquerading as journalism in the UK. But it is impossible to conclude that the UK has behaved honourably and decently in this affair. The Irish Government will find itself in a horrible situation through no fault of its own. It will hard to extricate us all from this mess.

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