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Brussels And London Remain Tangled Up In Brexit – OpEd

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By Yossi Mekelberg*

Back in 2018, when Theresa May was still clinging to her job as UK prime minister, she unveiled plans to hold a celebration of the country’s departure from the EU. It was instantly dubbed the “Festival of Brexit.” Since then, it has been renamed “Unboxed: Creativity in the UK.”

According to its promoters, the six-month-long event with the less-than-snappy title will start next March and has been produced by some of the “brightest minds” in science, technology, engineering, arts and math. In the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson — a man never far from hyperbole — it will be a celebration of the UK’s “ingenuity, energy, innovation, optimism and all-round creative genius,” and promises to be “unlike anything else that has been seen before.”

Hyperbole aside, and not to underestimate how much exceptional talent there is in the UK, there is hardly any reason for its people to celebrate at the moment. COVID-19 cases are soaring, along with the number of hospitalizations, and this is largely due to the government’s irresponsible approach.

In addition, a recent shortage of fuel in the forecourts resulted in drivers queuing for hours to fill their cars, while energy prices have gone through the roof and there are shortages of many goods in the shops. Much of this can be attributed to the government’s incompetent handling of Brexit from the very start.

In one sense, the Brexit debate is done and dusted, but its aftershocks are still being felt across the UK. One of the sticking points throughout the negotiations — and one we are still stuck with — is the status of Northern Ireland, an issue that is pushing EU-UK relations close to breaking point.

The crux of the matter is that, during the talks leading up to the UK’s departure from the EU, the Irish question was sidelined, willfully or negligently (and probably both). The possible implications for the Good Friday Agreement, which had kept Northern Ireland relatively calm since it was signed in 1998, were ignored. After all, the only physical border between the UK and the EU is the one between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and, in line with the agreement, the border has to stay open to allow for the free movement of people and goods.

As long as the UK was part of the EU, this did not pose a problem, as both economies were harmonized under the same trade regime. Enter Brexit and, instead of free movement within the EU, the situation required movements between an EU and a non-EU country to be determined by an agreement.

But there is an unavoidable contradiction between the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit. Hence, both sides were obliged to square the circle of avoiding any interference with the terms of the peace agreement while not violating UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland by treating it differently from the rest of the UK.

In October 2019, as the clock was ticking on Brexit and it became obvious there was no magic formula, Brussels and London agreed on what is known as the Northern Ireland protocol. As is the case with most agreements, the devil is in the detail (and even more so in the intentions of both sides), and it was Johnson who, under pressure, agreed to demarcate a customs border in the Irish Sea, which for trade purposes confers on Northern Ireland a different status to that of the rest of the UK.

The Johnson government agreed to this in order to avoid leaving the EU without a deal, which was regarded as the worst option, even though it always saw the agreement not as bringing closure to the issue, but merely as a stepping stone to a different deal.

The Northern Ireland protocol came about for a reason and, for that most important reason of preserving the peace in Ireland, it must prevail. It was designed to avoid the reintroduction of checks along the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border, as a compromise aimed at protecting the Good Friday Agreement. It agreed that Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules on product standards, thus avoiding the need for stringent border inspections.

However, the snag was that such inspections were instead introduced on goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales, which makes the territory, in practice, a separate entity. Without the folly of Brexit and Johnson’s interpretation of it, there would have been no need for the Northern Ireland protocol.

The British demand, almost from Day 1 of the Brexit agreement coming into effect, that the protocol be changed is yet another illustration of the manner in which the current UK government is handling its affairs. Keeping promises, including signed agreements, is at best optional. There were signs of this early on. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s now-ostracized former chief adviser and confidant, has unashamedly claimed that, from the outset, there was never any intent among the upper echelons of the government to adhere to the terms of the agreed protocol. The belligerent Cummings, long used to expressing out loud what Johnson would rather say behind closed doors, tweeted that “cheating foreigners is a core part of the job.”

Whether these were exactly Johnson’s views at the time or not, the current behavior of the government represents precisely this approach. Although Brussels resents in principle, and objects for practical reasons, any renegotiation of an agreement that was signed only two years ago, it came back with a generous offer that included some technical remedies to relax the administrative barriers on the checks of goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.

With a large degree of justification, the EU’s vice president responsible for Brexit, Maros Sefcovic, said that Brussels is willing to resolve the technicalities surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol, but will not accept the removal of European Court of Justice jurisdiction over the trade there as long as the border with the Irish Republic remains open, as this is fundamental to the operation of trade under single market rules. Any concession on this issue would undermine the very foundations of the EU.

British diplomacy at its best has distinguished itself with pragmatism and has constructively handled crisis situations. The onus is now on the UK government to abandon its populist tendencies, douse the flames of its rhetoric with Brussels and concentrate on rebuilding relations with the EU.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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