Explained | Why does the U.K. want to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol?

What is Britain proposing?

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:29 pm IST

Published - July 25, 2021 02:37 am IST

On appeal:  European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen  on July 22 refused to renegotiate the post-Brexit  trade deal with the U.K.

On appeal: European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen on July 22 refused to renegotiate the post-Brexit trade deal with the U.K.

The story so far: On July 21, the Boris Johnson administration informed the European Union (EU) that it wants to renegotiate the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protoco l. The EU has ruled out a renegotiation, but says it is open to “practical, flexible solutions”.

What’s behind Northern Ireland Protocol?

The sovereign territory of the U.K. includes England, Wales, Scotland, and what is known as Northern Ireland, which occupies a portion of the island of Ireland. The lion’s share of the island (26 of the 32 counties) forms the independent Republic of Ireland. Ireland has long seen tensions between the Catholics/Nationalists, who want a unified Irish republic, and the Protestants/Unionists, who are loyal to the British crown. The long and violent conflict between the two sides — known as The Troubles — ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, whose fragile peace rests on a principle that Brexit has now disrupted: there won’t be a border (and all that entails, such as checkpoints and customs) between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Editorial | Return to troubles: On Brexit and the Good Friday agreement

Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with the EU, as Ireland is an EU member-state. As long as the U.K. was part of the EU, there was no problem. But Brexit took the U.K. out of the EU’s customs union. It created a problem whose solution needed two seemingly contradictory outcomes: preserving the sanctity of the EU’s single market, as well as that of the U.K.’s domestic market. The Protocol’s solution was to avoid a customs check on the island of Ireland. Instead, it envisaged a ‘sea border’ at the ports of Northern Island. Certain goods — meant only for Northern Ireland but not for Ireland, which falls within the EU market — would undergo checks here before entering the island.

Why does the U.K. want changes?

The creation of an economic barrier between the British mainland and Northern Ireland has affected the free flow of goods between the two. Businesses in Northern Ireland have been complaining about cumbersome paperwork and compliance costs. Some British companies would like to avoid the hassle altogether by withdrawing supplies to Northern Ireland. All this has angered the Unionists, who see it as another attempt to dilute their links with the U.K., pushing them into the arms of the Irish republic. April this year saw rioting in Northern Ireland for nearly two weeks, with government vehicles being burned and 90 police officers injured. Clearly, apart from the economic irritants, Brexit seems to have resurrected old sensitivities about political identity, with the Unionists questioning why they alone — among U.K. citizens — should suffer differential treatment. While the Johnson regime has expressed concerns over the “febrile” situation in Ireland, even the U.S. — which helped broker the 1998 Agreement — has warned the U.K. against disturbing the fragile peace over Brexit.

What is Britain proposing?

In a nutshell, the U.K. is telling the EU, “Trust us to protect your single market.” It has proposed five changes to the Protocol: no more checks on goods moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland where a business self-certifies that its products are not meant for use in the EU; a dual regime wherein goods made to either U.K. standards or EU standards can circulate anywhere in Ireland; removal of the need for any ‘export declarations’ on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain; rewriting of the clause in Article 10 that requires the U.K. subsidies that affect trade with Northern Ireland to comply with EU rules; and finally, ending the right of EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice to enforce the Protocol.


What lies ahead?

These proposals would be unacceptable to the EU, as they outsource the enforcement of the Protocol — and the European customs union — entirely to the U.K. Besides, it’s only last year that the U.K. signed the Protocol, and given that nothing has changed since then, the EU will insist that the U.K. honour the deal.

The two sides will certainly seek a solution through talks. But if talks fail, the U.K. could invoke Article 16, which allows the unilateral suspension of a part of the agreement in extreme circumstances. In such a scenario, the economic barrier might shift to a land border on the island, which would basically shred the 1998 Agreement, and the peace that came with it. Interestingly, one U.K. legislator has admitted that the Northern Ireland Protocol was not a sincere effort to address the problem but merely a ‘fudge’ that sought to close the Brexit deal by kicking the can down the road. Now that ‘fudge’ has returned to haunt the Brexiters.

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