In a statement on Tuesday evening, UK foreign secretary Liz Truss told commissioner Maros Sefcovic the EU bore a responsibility to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the UK’s Brexit deal, “delivered on its original objectives”.
ince the UK chose to quit both the customs union and the single market — over other and less abrupt withdrawal options — the objective accepted by Boris Johnson’s government in the exit terms enshrined in the treaty of January 2020 could only be the avoidance of a hard Border in Ireland.
This was provided for in a protocol to the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which delivers continuing access to the single market for Northern Ireland and avoids customs controls on the Border. The cost, and it is not imaginary, is expense and inconvenience for Northern Ireland’s trade with mainland Britain, and unionist politicians have been objecting to the protocol.
Had the UK chosen to negotiate a closer relationship with the EU, and several variants were on offer, it could have largely avoided the trade barriers which will intensify in due course as the deal comes to be implemented.
The binary choice of an exit treaty that would displease either unionists or nationalists, with trade disruption somewhere, was not inevitable and was not implied by the referendum decision of 2016. The customs union avoids tariffs and customs checks, while the single market avoids non-tariff barriers. If you quit both the customs union and the single market, the best that can be negotiated is a free trade agreement — and this has been done.
The UK has free trade agreements with numerous countries, and this one is quite comprehensive. It avoids tariffs on merchandise trade but leaves customs checks and non-tariff barriers between Britain, but not Northern Ireland, and the European Union. These border controls had to be somewhere once the UK decided to depart and chose not to stick with either customs union or single market.
The EU was never going to agree, and the UK accepted this, that there would be a hole the size of Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs and regulatory border. If the barriers had to be somewhere, the sea was, politics aside, a more manageable location than a 480km land frontier.
Even if most Northern Irish businesses are not gravely affected, and that appears to be their verdict in surveys by trade associations, it is nevertheless a nuisance and an unwelcome cost item.
Although 56pc of Northern Irish voters chose the Remain option, the referendum was national and produced a 52pc to 48pc Leave majority. But this majority was for leaving the EU, the sole question on the ballot paper. Prior to the referendum, several prominent Leave campaigners explicitly denied a Leave majority would have the consequences which have now paralysed internal politics in Northern Ireland.
It was open to the UK to quit the EU’s political institutions, respecting the electorate’s verdict, while remaining attached to the customs union, the single market, or even both.
After the referendum, British politics became polarised around the form Brexit should take, with many business lobby groups arguing for a milder rupture than the agreement that eventually emerged. This was the framework of the deal hatched by Theresa May’s government when she succeeded the referendum’s progenitor, David Cameron, who abandoned office immediately after his referendum defeat in June 2016.
As Ms May has been pointing out recently, her deal, torpedoed along with her premiership by Johnson’s Brexiteers, with the support of the DUP, would have required neither a border in the Irish Sea nor a land Border in Ireland.
It would have been a “soft” Brexit. Non-EU countries including Norway, Switzerland and Turkey have a wide range of “soft” forms of non-membership, but the post-referendum Europhobia which engulfed the Tory party ended May’s premiership and any prospect of a less contentious deal for Northern Ireland. She has become understandably caustic about the role played by the DUP in the fall of her premiership and appeared still to be puzzled in the House of Commons last week about the political logic.
The DUP had campaigned for a Leave vote, as they were quite entitled to do, but their post-referendum support for a hard form of Brexit is more difficult to fathom. David Cameron’s victory in the 2015 general election yielded 331 Tory seats out of 650. The BBC estimated only around 40pc of these supported the Leave campaign in 2016, to which can be added the eight DUP members, all of whom urged a Leave vote.
With the referendum settled and the May government committed to implementing the electorate’s verdict, there was a baffling failure to find a form of Brexit which minimised the economic damage and retained the UK’s political capital in Europe.
There were hardly enough Brexiteers to make the actual outcome inevitable or even likely. The support of the DUP for the hardest available Brexit helped to undermine May — Commons motions favourable to remaining in the customs union were lost by as few as six votes.
The stance articulated by Liz Truss — who was secretary of state for international trade in the 2019 Johnson cabinet and either understood what was agreed in the treaty or neglected to inform herself — has already drawn sharp responses from the European Union, from the Irish Government and from the United States.
It is just a few short weeks since British ministers were reminding Vladimir Putin of the sanctity of international treaties, railing against the failure of Russia to stick by the 2014 Minsk agreement. There could be legal action by the EU, should the UK government introduce unilateral legislation reneging on the protocol, leading to commercial warfare between the two.
Anglo-Irish trade in food products and live animals would be an early casualty, as would any prospect of a trade deal for Britain with the US. The failure of British diplomacy matches Suez in 1956, with Johnson cast as Anthony Eden.