There has been feverish speculation, in both Westminster and Brussels, about the British government’s possible intention to trigger article 16 of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Make no bones about it: such a move, especially if accompanied by the unilateral suspension of elements of the Northern Ireland protocol, would throw the UK’s relations with the EU into turmoil, just at the moment when real progress is being made to facilitate its implementation.
For the Brexiteers dragging Boris Johnson to the cliff edge, there would be no great return to the supposedly consequence-free highs of the post-referendum period of 2016, as some might hope. Rather, it would mark the beginning of years more Brexit uncertainty, instead of the implementation of the promise to “get Brexit done”.
More importantly, as the hijacking of another bus in Belfast last weekend highlighted, there is an urgent need to ease tensions rather than inflame the situation. A majority of people in Northern Ireland don’t think that a triggering of article 16 would be justified, according to a recent opinion poll commissioned by Queen’s University Belfast. Before taking any decision, Johnson should ask himself what is really in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
It is increasingly clear that more and more citizens of Northern Ireland, who try each day to build a better future for themselves and their families, do not seek confrontation, further division and uncertainty; for them, the protocol is the only solution to the challenges posed by the type of Brexit that the British government negotiated.
The Queen’s University poll, commissioned before the announcement of the EU’s comprehensive proposals to reduce checks, tells us that 67% of Northern Irish citizens believe that bespoke trade and regulatory arrangements for Northern Ireland are needed to manage the effects of Brexit. This is precisely why the EU and the UK reached, after years of negotiation, an agreement on a protocol to safeguard peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland.
The number of voters who agreed or strongly agreed that the protocol is on balance a “good thing” for Northern Ireland had risen from 43% in June to 52% in October. As a matter of fact, Northern Ireland gets the best of both worlds under the current setup, as belonging to the UK as well as to the single market provides for significant economic opportunities – as long as there is stability and predictability for businesses and consumers alike. It is hard to see how ripping up the protocol now would enhance stability and predictability, at a time when the pandemic is still inflicting damage and energy prices are soaring.
There have been complaints that the role of the European court of justice – the involvement of which is necessary if Northern Irish businesses are to keep trading with the EU27 – infringes on the sovereignty of the people of Northern Ireland. Do these complaints come from people on the ground in Northern Ireland? Not to my knowledge. They mainly emanate from London. Will they be heeded? Don’t bet on it. There’s little chance that the EU would compromise on a golden rule of its single market.
Since the protocol came into force, the EU and the European Commission have, again and again, come with proposals to improve its operation for both businesses and citizens. The latest suggestions from the commission stretch the EU’s single market rules to breaking point. But they are also exactly what businesses in Northern Ireland requested.
In politics, some only want to be proved right, while others listen to the people and show a constructive spirit. Further years of Brexit negotiations are not in the interests of anyone who cares about peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
The EU has no desire to punish anyone for Brexit. Those who pretend otherwise are being intentionally misleading, in a bid to further undermine UK-EU relations. There is no reason for the UK to punish Northern Ireland for its very specific situation. There is no reason, either, to punish European fishermen, who have been able to fish in British waters for centuries and are now only asking that their rights be respected. To this end, we need the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) to be implemented in good faith.
As John Hume, a champion of human rights on the island of Ireland, once rightly said: “When people are divided, the only solution is agreement.” The EU has shown agility and determination in its bid to “get Brexit done”, be it on the protocol or on the TCA. It is now not too late for Johnson to decide to work with the EU in the collective best interest.