Why Northern Ireland keeps the UK and Europe at odds

The UK and the European Union are squabbling over Brexit deals covering trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, which aim to avoid the return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. The UK government says the current regime, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, is stifling the flow of goods and that it wants to rewrite the arrangements painstakingly agreed over years of negotiations. The tensions are a reminder that even though the UK formally separated from the EU at the start of 2020, fundamental aspects of the relationship remain problematic.

It is an arrangement to keep goods moving between Northern Ireland, a region of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, an EU member, to the south, while ensuring that the border does not become an easy target for smuggling goods into the EU. It does this by imposing physical checks on products arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Britain. The UK government says the burden of new red tape and customs procedures has disrupted trade and effectively created an internal border within a sovereign country. He is also unhappy that the European Court of Justice is overseeing large parts of the protocol.

New Prime Minister Liz Truss is backing legislation that would allow ministers to unilaterally rewrite much of the protocol. The new rules would separate goods moving just between Britain and Northern Ireland from those destined for the EU, and allow businesses in Northern Ireland to choose whether they follow UK or EU standards, or both , for goods. They would extend UK subsidy controls and tax breaks to Northern Ireland and strip the ECJ of its role in settling disputes over the Brexit deal in the region, instead allowing an arbitration panel independent to oversee legal matters. Alternatively, the UK could suspend part of the protocol by triggering an emergency clause known as Article 16, which the UK or EU can do if they believe the protocol has caused ” serious economic, societal or environmental hardship” or “trade diversion.” Article 16 does not allow a party to abandon the protocol altogether. The UK insists it would prefer a negotiated solution, without excluding any of the two options.

The European Commission said the UK bill “is extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK” and would be a breach of international law. EU officials say the UK has already accepted the protocol is the best solution to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the integrity of the EU’s ‘single market’ for goods, which guarantees the same standards and rules governing areas such as food safety. They say the current arrangement grants Northern Ireland unique access to the EU common market and the UK. The bloc offered concessions to reduce the customs burden on traders, but refused to give up the role of the ECJ.

4. How do people in Northern Ireland feel?

Support has risen for parties that want to keep the protocol, weakening Britain’s argument that the arrangement lacks support from the region’s population. In the Northern Ireland assembly elections in May, Irish nationalist Sinn Fein won seats from the Democratic Unionist Party, which favors close ties with Britain and campaigned for the protocol to be dropped because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. The DUP refuses to take its place in the region’s power-sharing government unless the protocol is scrapped.

5. Where do we go from here?

Britain’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is expected to face opposition in Parliament, but Truss is determined to push it through. The EU likened the legislation to a “gun on the table” in the talks. If Britain chooses the other route and triggers Article 16, the protocol requires each side to give the other a month’s notice before activating its provisions, and they must then hold talks before any action can be taken. The other party would have the right to take immediate and proportionate retaliatory measures. If the UK suspended customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, it would create a dilemma for the EU: would the bloc be willing to build its own border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? to protect its single market? This prospect has been downplayed by EU officials.

6. So what options does the EU have?

The EU has revived a case it had brought against the UK in March 2021 regarding the implementation of the protocol. In June, it decided to launch two new infringement procedures for the UK’s failure to comply with its obligations under EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules and to provide the EU with the required trade statistical data on North Ireland. Infringement proceedings could ultimately lead to financial penalties being imposed in the UK, but the cases will unfold over several months. If the EU really wants to play hardball, it could impose tariffs on targeted goods in Britain. The most drastic, and ultimately the riskiest, option would be an EU decision to end the entire trade and cooperation agreement with the UK, which would further hamper access for the UK to the EU single market. The EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner, and businesses on both sides would lose out. Should the dispute spin out of control, the hard-won peace and stability in Northern Ireland could ultimately be at risk.

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Mary I. Bruner