Boris Johnson’s proposal to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol he signed in 2019 suggests that he has still not come to terms with the implications of his red lines on Brexit. Mr Johnson’s delusions on the issue run deep. In October 2019, the prime minister repeatedly told MPs that “there will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland” despite his own government’s impact assessment saying precisely the opposite. These hurdles, Mr Johnson knew full well, would not be insignificant, as shoppers in Northern Ireland are now finding out. They are the predictable consequences of customs and regulatory deviations between the UK and the EU. Divergence required a border somewhere; the extra bureaucracy was baked into the protocol.
Mr Johnson needed a deal for political reasons ahead of the 2019 general election. He now needs to dump it because it’s bad for Britain. This has much to do with his government’s own behaviour, which has often been lazy, surly and chaotic. What has kept the show on the road has been grace periods, accepted by the EU, where rules of the deal are not applied. These are coming to an end. Without a breakthrough after months of talks behind closed doors, Mr Johnson has decided to conduct negotiations with Brussels in public.
The result is a proposal for a further “standstill” on existing arrangements, which Lord Frost, the cabinet minister responsible, says would allow for negotiations “without further cliff edges, and to provide a genuine signal of good intent”. This would require generosity from the EU for a refined deal with uncertain prospects. Such goodwill is hardly engendered by the UK government dressing up its demands in Brexiter tropes of meddling European courts and British “honesty” boxes. An ultimatum that London could unilaterally suspend parts of the Brexit deal doesn’t help much. The EU is unlikely to be cowed into submission by a smaller trade partner which faces retaliatory countermeasures. Threats just lower trust.
There is a real problem here. Shoppers in Northern Ireland say shipping online goods has become prohibitively expensive. Supermarkets warn there might be empty shelves in the region by Christmas. Manufacturers worry the “rules of origin” barriers mean tariffs being applied to goods circulating in Great Britain if they are sold on to Northern Ireland. Little wonder then that post-Brexit trading rules have contributed to a feeling for some in the unionist community that they are drifting away from the UK. It’s true that the Democratic Unionist party, which is on its third leader in as many months, has only itself to blame. The DUP labours under the fantasy that the protocol can be wished away. It cannot. However, the violence on streets has its roots in a real anger at what is going on. There is a danger in making people in Northern Ireland feel like pawns in a chess game heading towards a desperate stalemate.
The EU is a rules-based organisation. It wants, quite reasonably, to apply the protocol Mr Johnson negotiated, not the one he wished he’d negotiated. The European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič pointedly said in response to Lord Frost that “respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance”. However, Brussels can find flexible, practical approaches to an imperfect arrangement. So must the UK government. We have been here before. Last summer Britain backed down in a “food blockade” row with Brussels after agreeing to work transparently with the EU. What’s happening across the Irish Sea is a taste of things to come for mainland shoppers: in January most goods will need full customs declarations at the time of import from the EU to Britain. Unless something is done, a rude awakening awaits British voters who, in many ways, are yet to feel the cost of Mr Johnson’s Brexit.