Boris Johnson wants to destroy the Northern Irish protocol

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After months of speculation, the Conservative government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tabled legislation in the British Parliament that would allow it to override key parts of the “Northern Ireland Protocol”. This protocol was a key part of the British Brexit agreement. It was supposed to prevent the return of a customs border between Northern Ireland, which was no longer part of the European Union, and the Republic of Ireland, which was still a member. Unionists in Northern Ireland hated Protocol and many members of the Conservative Party disliked it either. Now, the Conservative government has given itself the power to unilaterally modify the agreement.

If the UK government uses its powers under the legislation, it will take great political risks. First, it will trigger a major fight with the European Union, which could retaliate with trade measures that would hurt the UK economy, already reeling from global uncertainty and the costs of Brexit. Second, it will also harm relations with the United States. Members of Congress have made it clear they will block a new trade deal, which the UK desperately wants, if it does anything to damage peace in Northern Ireland. So why did Johnson do it? Most likely, he wanted to consolidate his fragile leadership of a divided political party.

The Northern Ireland protocol was supposed to keep the peace

For decades, Northern Ireland has been riven by violence and strife between unionists, who want her to stay in the UK, and nationalists, who want her to join the Republic of Ireland. The EU helped bring peace in the 1990s. Both the UK and Ireland were EU members, which minimizes internal customs controls and maintains a shared market for goods and services. They did not need customs checks on the politically contentious border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, making it less relevant and visible.

This all changed when the UK left the EU and decided (after internal controversy) to also withdraw from EU market agreements. Suddenly, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic became relevant again. New customs barriers could make the border a target for dissident nationalist paramilitaries.

This was the problem that the Northern Ireland protocol was supposed to solve. After tough negotiations, Britain and the EU have agreed that Northern Ireland will continue to be part of EU market deals. This allowed free trade with the Republic, but at the cost of complicating economic relations between Northern Ireland and British Unionists – and some British Conservatives – were unhappy, as they believed the deal created a new invisible border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

This led to further negotiations between the EU and the UK and ultimately to a stalemate. Now, after months of flagging, the UK government has introduced new legislation that would allow it to unilaterally get rid of parts of the Northern Ireland protocol it doesn’t like. Johnson says the legislation is justified by an unexpected “genuinely exceptional situation”. However, members of the British government have had trouble explaining what happened, if anything, was not expected when Britain signed the deal.

The UK is taking a huge risk

Johnson’s legislation carries a number of political risks. Dissenting Conservatives have argued that the legislation is illegal under international law (there are evidence that one of the government’s most important legal advisers agrees with them). It also risks provoking a trade war with the EU, which is a much bigger economy than the UK, meaning the UK is likely to fare worse.

Finally, the White House and senior US politicians said they were unhappy with the British initiative. This makes it much less likely that a proposed UK-US trade deal will be agreed and passed by Congress. Proponents have claimed that Brexit would allow the UK to strike its own trade deals outside the EU. Now the UK’s Brexit policy is making it harder rather than easier to reach a deal.

So why is Johnson insisting on passing the legislation? Few British observers believe his focus is on Northern Ireland’s political stability and Unionist discontent. After all, he was perfectly willing to throw trade unionists overboard to get the initial deal with the EU.

Instead, most point to Johnson’s political struggles with his own party. Johnson survived a recent attempt by dissident MPs in Parliament to remove him as Tory leader, but only by 211 votes to 148. His leadership is badly damaged and could be further shaken if his party loses two to come by elections.

Northern Ireland Protocol and the EU are hated by many Tory MPs he wants to keep on his side. Passing the legislation can help protect his party leadership in the short term, even if it hurts the UK economy for years to come.

The EU is slow to react

EU has indicated he will start legal action against the UK later this week. However, he is likely to be expecting direct retaliation at this time. A battle with the EU could be just what Johnson wants, allowing him to blame Brussels for the UK’s poor economic situation. Moreover, it is not clear that retaliation would push the UK into a deal. Johnson is probably too weak politically to guide any compromise in parliament. Nor is it clear that he and his government would be any more willing to honor the commitments they made than they were when they negotiated the protocol.

The coming months will likely see more bitter exchanges of words, but no substantial changes, as everyone waits to see what happens to Johnson. His political weakness led to this legislation, but it can also prevent the emergence of a new deal: no one wants to strike a deal with a prime minister with an uncertain political future, who has already reneged on a deal.

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