Brexit Is Still a Hot Mess

From the pandemic to President Joseph Biden’s election, the January 6 insurrection, and the vaccine rollout, a lot has changed in the last 18 months.

One thing that hasn’t? Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, is still a hot mess.

The latest chapter in the saga has the British government threatening to go “nuclear” and invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol—not good for already tense U.K.-E.U. Beziehungen

The Northern Ireland Protocol was established to guarantee free trade between Northern Ireland, Ireland, and all other members of the E.U. Status of Northern Ireland’s land border (a U.K. part) and Republic of Ireland (a U.K part) One of the major stumbling blocks in a withdrawal deal between the E.U. was the status of Northern Ireland’s land border. U.K. In order to keep the north-south border open—essential to preserving the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace accord that ended three decades of sectarian conflict—while preserving the integrity of the E.U.’s single market, the Protocol stipulated a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, with any disputes to be settled by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
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Article 16 triggers dire legal, political and economic consequences.

Were we meant to be here?

Tensions between E.U. and the U.K. increased following publication of a “command paper” in July. and the U.K. increased following the latter’s publication of a “command paper” in July, Asking the E.U. to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol, and threaten to invoke Article 16 if Brussels refuses.

Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost justified the move by citing the “diversion of trade” and economic and societal pressures caused by the E.U.’s implementation of customs and agri-food checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea. This has caused significant shortages in Northern Ireland, and disrupted trade between Britain & Northern Ireland. Frost’s demands included applying both U.K. and E.U. standards in Northern Ireland and rejecting Brussels’s demand for the U.K. to adhere to E.U. agri-food rules. The U.K. also demanded an end to the EJC’s role in policing the Protocol in Northern Ireland.

It was obvious that, while Brussels would be open to discussions about the Protocol’s implementation, it wouldn’t renegotiate the Protocol. This effectively closed the door for any compromise on the role of ECJ.

After an extended stalemate on October 13, the E.U. formally responded to the U.K.’s demands with a proposal that went further than the U.K. government expected, easing 80% of border checks and doing away with half of the paperwork requirements. The E.U. did not respond to the U.K.’s demands. However, the E.U. made no concessions regarding the role played by the ECJ in policing Protocol.

What’s next?

This offer was made by the E.U. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is now in an awkward position

Brussels is unlikely to fundamentally compromise on the ECJ’s oversight role, especially when it is simultaneously being challenged on this front by E.U. Poland and other members. This means that if Johnson wants a deal, he will have to back down from his demand to end the ECJ’s role in the Protocol, at significant political cost.

The alternative is to use Brussels’ refusal to concede as a pretext to invoke Article 16, suspend part of the Protocol, and blame the E.U. Any consequences. This course of action could lead to a costly trade war between the bloc’s 27 member nations. While this prospect would take months to play out, a prolonged trade dispute would compound Johnson’s headache over supply chain disruptions in the lead-up to Christmas and worsen the government’s already strained relationship with the business community. A breakup in the relations with E.U. would also damage the U.K.’s reputation as a country that can be trusted to negotiate in good faith and keep its word, undermining a key selling point of its “Global Britain” agenda. It could also damage relationships with Biden who is Irish-American and expressed strong opinions about the Belfast deal.

The U.K. will continue to play rhetorical brinkmanship for at least a few more weeks, holding off on triggering Article 16 while Frost tries to extract further concessions from European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.

Johnson must make an extremely difficult decision sooner or later: either compromise and continue on or provoke a conflict that the U.K. would lose.


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