Boris Johnson’s demands cannot be met
Less than two years after negotiating, signing and ratifying the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, Boris Johnson this week demanded that it be torn apart. He wants to exempt from all checks goods made in the UK and destined for Northern Ireland, introduce a dual regulatory system in place of the EU regulatory regime and remove the oversight role of European courts.
This amounts to a dismantling of the core of the protocol, which was designed to avoid a customs and regulatory border on the island of Ireland, while protecting the European single market and Ireland’s place within it. The deal does not affect Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the UK and includes a consent mechanism that allows the Stormont institutions to discontinue much of it after four years. The UK government’s decision not to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol by triggering Article 16 is welcome. This reflects a realization in London that unilateral action comes at a high cost, not only for Britain’s relations with European capitals but also with Washington.
Britain has called on the EU to agree to a standstill period, during which current arrangements around the protocol would be frozen and European lawsuits over past violations of the agreement would be suspended. The European Commission has ruled out renegotiation but will consider the status quo. Johnson’s substantive demands are impossible, not least because they demand that the EU, which is based on the application of the legal order, instead accept a system based on trust. Confidence is lacking when it comes to the British Prime Minister, who has shown little evidence that he is acting in good faith.
Although the proposals are framed in rhetoric of concern about the impact of the protocol on Northern Ireland, this British government has shown little regard for the negative effect its policies have on the people there. By proposing a general amnesty for unrest-related offenses, he ignored the concerns of victims and drew all-party opposition in Northern Ireland in an attempt to appease backbench Tory MPs. Brexit Minister David Frost and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis have made no effort to discourage union unrest over the protocol while paying tribute to groups representing loyalist paramilitaries. They have nothing to say about the benefits the protocol gives to northern businesses, which can trade freely with the EU as well as the rest of the UK.
Brussels and Dublin reacted calmly to the British proposals, taking the time to study them before offering a response. But when the time comes, they should leave Johnson in no doubt that he must live up to the commitments he made in the protocol and that it will not be renegotiated.