The return of Brexit to the political agenda and the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol have disrupted the delicate quadrangular relations between Brussels, London, Dublin and Belfast.
Uncertainty and apprehension about the collapse of the arrangement – and what it will mean for the future of Northern Ireland – is everywhere.
But what happens now? And how are next steps being considered in the four capitals where politicians and officials are grappling with the issue?
In London, preparations are underway for the next move.
The UK government is expected to present a bill to the House of Commons next month, but some key details about what exactly is on offer remain unclear. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told MPs this week that the government would ‘consult businesses and people in Northern Ireland as our proposals are put forward’ and that the aim was not to completely abandon the protocol.
The proposed bill would maintain Britain’s commitment to the Common Travel Area, the Single Electricity Market and North-South cooperation. But it would replace the system of checks and controls on goods being transported from Britain to Northern Ireland with a new green channel for everything companies say are destined to stay there.
Goods in Northern Ireland would no longer be required to meet EU regulatory standards if they followed UK regulations and London could set VAT rates in the North without reference to the European Commission.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) would have no role in arbitrating disputes over the deals, but Truss says Britain will protect the EU’s single market by introducing penalties for those who break the changed rules .
What is not yet certain is whether the bill would itself remove the central elements of the protocol or if it would allow ministers to do so. Ahead of its introduction, the government will issue a statement explaining why it believes it is legally entitled to renege on the protocol, which is part of an international treaty.
UK Attorney General Suella Braverman said she would not publish the government’s full legal opinion, which the Financial Times said came from a former lawyer for Donald Trump.
“I think the slanders brought against lawyers are actually very serious attacks on their professional reputation, whereas lawyers in private practice would not necessarily have the right to respond, and one way or another, trying to slander them is actually quite dangerous,” she said. Conservative house.
Truss says the UK government is ready to negotiate with the EU while the bill goes through parliament, a process that could take a year. A number of Tory MPs are likely to rebel, but government whips are confident the House of Commons would approve.
The House of Lords could be trickier, not least because it’s packed with former judges and diplomats, many of whom opposed the government’s earlier attempt to roll back the Withdrawal Agreement with the Internal Market Bill . If the Peers were determined to oppose it, they could block the Bill and, under the Act of Parliament, the Commons would have to wait a year before passing it without the approval of the Lords.
The most pressing issue in Belfast concerns the restoration of power-sharing institutions.
Whether or not the Northern Assembly and executive will work has been firmly linked to the protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – of the DUP, which has blocked the appointment of a president in the absence of “decisive action” on the issue by the United Kingdom. government.
The clock is now ticking on a six-month deadline, after which the whole edifice will crumble and, in theory, a general election will have to be called. The general expectation is that it is only when we reach the end of this deadline in the fall that meaningful progress could occur.
That said, following Truss’ announcement on Tuesday that London intends to legislate to unilaterally remove parts of the protocol, there has been a relaxation of DUP language, which may provide the “landing zone”. – to use the new sentence of the day – needed for at least a partial solution.
In an interview on BBC Radio Ulster on Friday, it was noted that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s call for decisive action was cited as the precondition for “full” reintegration into political institutions. Although he stressed the need to see the detail of the legislation first, which points to the possibility of a phased solution that would allow the election of a President and, therefore, the restoration of the Assembly.
This, however, would only be the starting point; the North would still be without a fully functioning executive and there is much to do to calm tensions and repair relationships, political and otherwise, damaged by this crisis, as well as to face the reality that a substantial part of trade unionism is feels alienated and that her identity has been undermined by protocol.
So far so feverish, but the likely next step will be “unspectacular and rather familiar at this point”, says Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast.
“Truss meets [EU negotiator Maroc] Sefcovic and the talks will resume, but with less confidence and goodwill than ever at the political level,” she said. “Direct, serious and constructive engagement between the UK and EU with business and NI officials will be critically important in all of this.
“It would help keep the focus on solving the real issues and thus get both parties moving.”
Throughout the Brexit debacle, the constant corporate cry has been for clarity; there is an appetite for what would effectively be a stock-taking exercise with technical teams from the UK and EU to establish exactly where things stand, and to focus on fixing the issues – controls, bureaucracy – for consumer-facing businesses importing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Yet all of this raises another key question, says Hayward: “Who decides what is enough, and when?”
In Brussels, the EU hopes for the best, but prepares for the worst.
The UK government’s threat to unilaterally change the protocol is seen as hostile and counterproductive, as it makes it harder to come up with solutions to get rid of checks and paperwork that were in the pipeline.
London had long asked Brussels to trust it and not take a suspicious and heavy-handed approach to protocol enforcement. With the goodwill accumulated during the cooperation on Ukraine, London was close to winning this argument, before its latest decision destroyed relations again.
This explains the suspicions of the European Commission and EU member states that the British government may not actually be looking for a solution, but rather wants a conflict with Brussels for its own good, for domestic political purposes.
For this reason, the next step belongs to London. The latest tensions have been fomented by London, and Brussels has decided that it will do nothing to escalate the situation, but will continue to call for dialogue and common solutions, hoping all the time that Boris Johnson’s government will change course. notice and will abandon the Invoice project.
The EU is well aware that passing legislation is a long process, with plenty of opportunities for such plans to be quietly dropped along the way, depending on how politics plays out in London.
There are two paths to follow and preparations are underway for both. The first is for the British government to resume the talks and move away from its unilateral action plans. Over the past year, having observed the reality of trade in Northern Ireland, the EU now believes that surveillance can largely be carried out remotely, rather than through invasive physical checks, as long as data on what happens can be monitored in real time. Authorities have set the stage for the checks and documentation required for goods traveling from Britain to Northern Ireland to be significantly reduced.
But preparation is also underway for the less optimistic scenario. Member states backed a step-by-step approach, whereby the EU would respond to every action by the UK government with a corresponding reaction of equal force. Potential steps include resuming legal action against the UK for infringement and seeking dispute resolution under the EU-UK trade deal.
If all else fails and the UK government chooses the “nuclear option” to pass legislation overriding the protocol, thus breaking an international agreement, the EU will also consider itself no longer bound. This means the end of free trade: the imposition of tariffs on British products
In Dublin, ministers and senior officials are preparing for a few difficult weeks and months.
There is a realization that its unique role in the process – part of the EU to be sure but with a special relationship to the UK and the added concern of Northern Ireland to navigate – will become more difficult over time.
Nowhere in the EU is the anger against the British government greater than in Dublin; and yet nowhere is the desire to find a concerted solution to the impasse more apparent. So ministers and civil servants will seek to interpret, explain and analyze the EU in the UK, and vice versa – not as a formal party to the negotiations, but still as a central element.
Few believe in the Dublin nightmare scenario – where EU-UK relations deteriorate to the point where the whole trade deal falls apart and the government is faced with the choice of controlling the goods crossing the Irish border or goods crossing Ireland to the rest of the EU – is likely. But they know it’s more likely than a month ago.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has repeatedly said that the “landing ground” on which a viable solution can be found is visible to all. But getting there in an atmosphere of intense mistrust is another matter.
Other potential calamities are also predicted in Dublin. There are deep fears that disputes over protocol will see tensions escalate on the ground as the season for loyalist marches approaches and there is intense private criticism of the UK government’s ‘recklessness’.
To help counter this, there will be intensive outreach efforts to Northern parties – particularly from the Taoiseach personally to Unionist leaders – in an attempt to bring the temperature down. But with the UK government likely to up the dial by tabling legislation to reverse the protocol in the coming weeks, it has its work cut out on that front.