SELDOM CAN a simple treaty protocol caused so much turmoil so soon after it was signed. As part of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, Britain left the European Union’s single market and customs union. But to avoid a hard north-south border in Ireland, Northern Ireland has, in effect, remained in both. Rather, it requires border and customs controls between the province and Great Britain.
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The Prime Minister is now attacking Brussels for its legal purism in the application of their agreement. His supporters denounce the EUcolonialism and a lack of sensitivity to delicate Northern Irish politics. They even accused EU leaders to treat the province as if it were no longer a full member of the United Kingdom.
Yet it was Mr Johnson who chose to negotiate the protocol as an alternative to the hated “backstop” devised by Theresa May, his predecessor. This would have kept the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU. The protocol sets out precisely how this alternative arrangement should work, including rules to block the movement of chilled meats such as fresh sausages, after a grace period that expires on June 30.
Mr Johnson knew all of this when he triumphantly ratified the protocol, calling it the best of both worlds. It is fallacious for him to feign outrage today, as Brussels calls for the rules to be implemented, not broken. Even if he savored the political gains of a fight with the EU, in the interests of peace in Ireland and the health of Britain’s most vital trade relations, he would have to compromise — and the EU should do everything possible to help him.
An early sign of the potential costs appeared in the g7 in Cornwall, Britain’s exit party after Brexit, which has been partly overshadowed by wrangling over protocol. Mr Johnson has signaled that he plans to break treaty (and, again, international law) by unilaterally extending the grace period for chilled meat. For its part, Brussels insists on the fact that it will invoke its right of retaliation with tariffs.
A sausage tariff war would be nonsense. the EU is ruled by law and he fears Mr Johnson will gradually undermine the entire protocol. But by supporting his cause, he plays the game with his hands, because his scores in the polls increase over the battles with the EU. Even if the law is on its side, the policy is not.
A compromise is available. the EU could be more creative in assessing whether goods destined for Northern Ireland are really about to enter its single market. It is already easing the flow of guide dogs and medicine, and the Single Market has just survived six months of runny British sausages.
Although the EU does not trust the UK government, Mr Johnson could help by offering his own concession by promising to observe, for a limited period, EU food safety standards, as Switzerland does. This would eliminate 80% of controls in the Irish Sea and, in addition, allow exports of beef, lamb and fishery products from Great Britain to the EU to resume.
Some oppose it, pointing to a British ideological allergy to any alignment with EU rules. Yet the British government is sticking to the EUveterinary standards, in fact, it promises to exceed them. Others say that the regulatory divergence with the EU may be needed to secure a free trade agreement with America, a major food exporter. Yet at g7 summit, Mr. Biden promised that would not be the case. In any case, there is no prospect of a transatlantic free trade agreement for several years.
Other free trade agreements with, say, Australia would still be possible while respecting EU rules. Switzerland has an agreement with China and, unlike EU countries, can import hormone-treated beef if labeled. Tellingly, the temporary British observance (avoiding the term ‘alignment’) of the EU‘Veterinary standards have been called for by all parties in Northern Ireland, including the new Democratic Unionist leader, Edwin Poots.
This scheme would allow time for relations with EU cool down and let the negotiators find a more pragmatic approach to North Irish trade. It would be wiser than further violations of international law or the imposition of tariffs. Does Mr Johnson want a fight, or what better for the UK? ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Protocol Problems”