We have reached another impasse. Or rather, we reached exactly the same impasse again.
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February 22, 2023 at 4:25 PM(Has been updated 5:04 pm)
Scholars like me tend to think in terms of constants and variables. Variables are, well, different. Constants are not. Given the confusion surrounding the ongoing narrative surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, it is worth clarifying on this. Observers, and potentially the Chancellor himself, are confusing constants and variables. So (hopefully proven wrong), we’re stuck again. Or rather, we reached exactly the same impasse again.
Let’s start with one large constant here. The Protocol itself has not been rewritten, revised, or repealed. The EU has categorically refused to allow an EU review. So the text is as it was negotiated and signed by Boris Johnson. The questions raised then are still with us today.
And these issues were as clear as they were then. Impact evaluation The Government’s European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill of 2019. For border crossings to inspect agricultural products. For import declaration and export summary declaration. etc.
So the protocol is still in force. What appears to have changed (and we’re talking here about an arrangement that remains a closely guarded secret) is how the document is implemented. Both the UK and EU appear to have conceded, agreeing to provide real-time data and allow separate ‘lanes’ for goods entering and leaving Northern Ireland. This makes GB-NI trading easier, but it’s by no means a feat.
On governance, another constant remains to meet the demand that Northern Ireland should have a say in the laws governing it, no matter how the role of the EU’s courts is arranged. . Some of her EU laws apply to Northern Ireland or require a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of the South. Non-member countries do not vote on these laws. And the final arbitrator for them remains the European Court of Justice.
So while there are some differences in how the protocol actually works, the basic principles remain.
It brings us to politics. The main obstacle to the resolution of the protocol dispute so far has been opposition from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists and Conservative Brexit supporters.
The signs to date are not encouraging. An early sign is that Conservative Brexit supporters are not convinced. And at the Prime Minister’s question today, DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson demanded that the Prime Minister rewrite the “legally-binding treaty text.” He mistook constants for variables.
The UK government and the EU appear to be able to reach agreement on how to make the current protocol work better. But they will struggle to do so in a way that will convince key political constituents here. Exacerbating most of the toxicosis does little to strengthen Rishi Snack’s already fragile position.
All this begs the question: what the heck was the prime minister doing? Did he really think he could tweak the current deal and get away with it? Didn’t he at least come up with some suggestions? Didn’t he look at the events of the last few years and learn some lessons from them?
It all encourages a profound sense of déjà vu. Like David Cameron and Theresa May before him, Snak seems to have negotiated a deal he’s a little embarrassed to detail to his own army. Again, the trade-offs that Brexit imposes are implied rather than faced. If the UK is outside the Single Market and Customs Union, there must be a border within Ireland or between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. No wonder we seem to have reached the Brexit impasse again.
Anand Menon is the British director of a changing Europe