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Stephen Collins: Johnson steps back from the brink for now

No knowing what the UK prime minister will do next after his erratic behaviour to date

The warnings from political leaders in Dublin that the EU would engage in a trade war with the UK if the British government walked away from the Northern Ireland protocol seems to have had the desired effect. For the moment, at least, Boris Johnson has stepped back from his widely reported intention of triggering article 16 as the first step towards outright repudiation of the protocol.

On the face of it Johnson’s retreat is yet another U-turn to add to the 30 or more he has engaged in since he won a substantial majority in the 2019 general election. The problem is that he has behaved so erratically during his entire premiership that there is no knowing what he will do next.

Johnson’s rapid retreat in the face of the public fury that followed his attempt to get his friend and political ally Owen Paterson off the hook for blatant breaches of parliamentary rules was simply the latest reminder that he is prepared to abandon any position once he deems it expedient to do so.

Last weekend all the signals coming out of Downing Street and its cheerleaders in the Tory press were that Johnson would trigger article 16. It was widely touted as the start of a process that would ultimately extricate the UK from the arrangement whereby Northern Ireland has remained in the EU single market and customs union.


The assumption in London appeared to be that triggering the mechanism would start a process of technical talks that would wheedle more concessions from the EU, with the ultimate aim being to get rid of European Court of Justice (ECJ) oversight of the protocol. That would have effectively rendered it void.

New level

In a bid to alert the British to the fact that triggering article 16 would instead escalate the row to a whole new level, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney took to the airwaves on Sunday and warned that the EU could respond by setting aside the entire free trade and co-operation agreement that had averted a no-deal Brexit in 2019. In the days that followed the point was reiterated by Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

The clear intention was to put the UK on notice that the free trade deal was in real jeopardy. The implications of that for the British economy, already struggling with shortages and declining trade with the EU, cannot be underestimated.

While no decision had actually been taken in Brussels to escalate the dispute it is no secret that the French are keen for a fight and that a number of other member states are appalled by the way in which the substantial concessions made by the EU on the protocol had simply prompted more British demands.

The fact that Ireland, the EU country that stands to lose most in a trade war with the UK, was facing up to the prospect of one was a reflection of how serious things had become.

Other countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, who would suffer in a trade war with the UK, also appear to have lost patience, and the momentum in Brussels now is for the strongest possible response to the triggering of article 16.

However, even if Johnson decides to revert to confrontation mode, the full impact will not be felt for some time. The EU has to give 12 months’ notice of its intention to abrogate the trade and co-operation agreement, and that will inevitably lead to another year of interminable negotiations to try and avert a trade war.

Ireland will again be caught in the middle of such a process, with the uncertainty fuelling tensions in Northern Ireland and threatening the post-Covid economic recovery in the Republic.


One of the most damaging and irresponsible aspects of the way Johnson and his Brexit negotiator David Frost have behaved is that their rhetoric has stoked tensions in the North. It has served to incite loyalist paramilitaries, and also to make it impossible for mainstream unionism to start looking for compromise.

The scale of the concessions made by European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in his last set of proposals took the British government by surprise, but instead of embracing them Frost immediately upped the ante by demanding an end to the ECJ’s role. Given that hard line there was no way Jeffrey Donaldson or Doug Beattie could have accepted the concessions even if they wanted to.

It is a pity the EU did not from the beginning operate the protocol in the way it is now proposing. That might have defused tensions in the North and given even less excuse to Johnson to weaponise the protocol to cover up the fact that he agreed to it in the first place.

The bottom line is that after his walk in the Wirral with Varadkar in October 2019, Johnson declared that he had achieved a great new deal and the protocol was an integral part of it. He then went on to win a general election on the slogan “get Brexit done”.

The message of the past week is that if he really attempts to renege on his commitments the EU will call his bluff.