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Protesters against Brexit in Belfast in 2019
Many feared that Brexit would rekindle former divisions on the island of IrelandImage: Getty Images/C. McQuillan

New Brexit row over Northern Ireland protocol

Barbara Wesel
July 24, 2021

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rekindled Britain’s spat with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol. Brussels has rejected all attempts to renegotiate it.


Perhaps British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted a distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from England's July 19 reopening. So, he rekindled the old spat about the Northern Ireland protocol and sent his confidant, Brexit Minister David Frost, to the House of Commons for another round in the battle over border controls.  

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May had already failed to find a solution to the seemingly insoluble quandary of Northern Ireland and Brexit. When Britain left the European Union, Northern Ireland also effectively left the single market. The Republic of Ireland, which is its strong economic partner, meanwhile, remains part of the EU. There is thus supposed to be a border so that the movement of goods between the two countries can be controlled. But Ireland's history and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement mean that a "hard" border is seen as impossible. However, the EU refuses to agree to there not being any controls on its new external border.

It is difficult to resolve this problem logically. So a compromise drawing a fictional border through the Irish Sea was devised, and this was what Johnson signed up to last December. Since then, however, he has done everything, at least in Brussels' view, to thwart this compromise from coming into effect. The issue surfaced at the recent G7 summit in Cornwall when he clashed with French President Emmanuel Macron over the transport of sausages from one country to the other.

Macron's US counterpart Joe Biden also warned Johnson in Cornwall to not do anything that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Ireland. However, this does not seem to have deterred Johnson or had a long-lasting effect on him.


Sausage rolls
The transport of British sausages was one topic of contention at the recent G7 summitImage: Imago/CTK Photo

Rehashed proposals

The British government has insisted that for the time being the protocol will remain in place, but Frost made a series of proposals to overhaul it significantly, most of them based on suggestions that had already been made and discarded during four years of Brexit negotiations. 

He has proposed abolishing the inspection of goods if a company certifies that these were not produced for consumption in the EU but only for Northern Ireland. He also said that all British goods that met EU standards should be allowed to circulate freely, whereas others should clearly be marked "for Northern Ireland only." However, he also suggested that Britain would be responsible for regulating this, so the EU would effectively have to outsource its border control mechanisms to London.

Post-Brexit tensions in Northern Ireland

Another proposal is to abolish export certification because Johnson has always promised that Northern Ireland will not be burdened with extra paperwork. The EU has made concessions on this matter, but London wants to abolish all documentation altogether.

It also wants to abolish rules on state aid, according to which the British government would have to ensure that all subsidies for any goods destined for Northern Ireland are in accordance with EU law. This was always considered as interference in British sovereignty.

It also wants to remove the European Court of Justice, which is responsible for implementing the protocol, from the overhauled version.

Boris Johnson signs Brexit deal as David Frost looks on
Boris Johnson signed the Brexit trade deal with the EU in December 2020Image: Leon Neal/Getty Images

EU rebuffs London

To make his case personally, Boris Johnson spoke on the phone both with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"The prime minister set out that the way the protocol was currently operating was unsustainable. Solutions could not be found through the existing mechanisms of the protocol. That was why we had set out proposals for significant changes to it," a Downing Street spokesman stated afterward.

But von der Leyen rejected the proposals: "The EU will continue to be creative and flexible within the protocol framework. But we will not renegotiate," she said afterward.

The response from Berlin was even harsher, with government spokesman Sebastian Fischer issuing a "A #Brexit reminder" on Twitter. "The Northern Ireland protocol was negotiated by the [UK] government. It was signed by the [UK] government. It was ratified by the [UK] Parliament. Its consequences were known. Is it too much to expect the [United Kingdom] to stand by what it has negotiated, signed and ratified?"

In diplomatic terms, this is a slap in the face. There is no desire to renegotiate in Brussels or any of the capital cities of the EU's member states. But the British government has Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party breathing down its neck. The new leader of the unionist and loyalist party, which has been ravaged by internal divisions, has threatened to undermine any proposal that would call into question Northern Ireland's right to be treated in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.

The DUP feels that Johnson betrayed it by signing the Northern Ireland protocol in the first place and has voiced concern about whether there is mutual "trust" between the two allies. Trust is also lacking between Brussels and Britain, which makes any informal solutions more difficult. EU negotiators are already repulsed and annoyed by this latest episode in Brexit entertainment.

This article has been translated from German

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