It will soon be exactly one year since the UK left the European Union. During this time, much has changed in relations between London a-nd continental Europe. The British government is seen there as an unreliable partner, ready to break its obligations at any time. French Presid-ent Macron calls the British Prime Minister a clown. This is not so bad. Worst of all, Macron is hitting a painful spot in London’s conflict with the European Union – Northern Ireland.
The region’s capital, Belfast, is currently undergoing an unusual trial. A group of local politicians are suing the Johnson government. They argue that by signing a Brexit agreement with the European Union, the cabinet violated the 1800 Union Act, uniting the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. The suit is exotic – in its former form, such a union has long been gone, but the law has not been canceled. The initiators of the process are unhappy with the so-called Irish Protocol.
This document stipulates that Northern Ireland rem-ains in the European Single Market Area and is subject to EU trade rules. If the N-orth left the European Cust-oms Union, then the island would have to restore a full-fledged border, which is fraught with a renewal of the old conflict between Irish loyalists, supporters of an alliance with England, and Republicans who dream of reuniting the country under Dublin rule.
The French president ar-gues that the Northern Ir-eland protocol has “existential” significance for the E-uropean single market and beyond: “This is a matter of war and peace for Ireland. <…> I don’t think we sh-ould play with such a to-pic.” His words came at a time when intensive negotiations are underway betwe-en London and the EU to change the protocol.
The British government is not happy with the fact that an economic border has emerged within the United Kingdom. Under the agreement with Bruss-els, British companies sen-ding their goods to Nor-thern Ireland must fill out declarations, confirm their compliance with European standards and, if necessary, pay customs duties.
This summer, dissatisfaction with the protocol led to a “sausage war.” According to EU rules, meat products from third countries, and now the UK belongs to them, must only be supplied frozen. In fact, this means a ban on the supply of traditional British sausages and meat pies to Northern Ireland. The grace period, when these rules did not actually work, ended on June 30, but the EU eventually agreed not to impose restrictions, giving the UK a grace period.
London demanded to radically change the protocol, removing all economic barriers from it. Otherwise, the British government threatens to apply the 16th article of this document, which provides for a unilateral withdrawal from the agreement. Such a decision will at least lead to a full-fledged trade war: the European Union threatens to impose tariffs on British manufacturers in return.
And this is not the worst scenario yet.
The border separating the north and south of Ireland is now a nominal line on the map – there are no customs or border posts on it. Moving from one country to another can be understood only by road signs: from the north side of the mile, from the south of the kilometer. But this does not mean that there is no border at all. And the worst thing is that it is located in the capital of Northern Ireland.
Belfast is still divided by a tall concrete wall that delimits the Catholic Republican and Protestant Royalist neighborhoods. The gloomy building was decorated with graffiti and is called “the wall of the world”, but in reality, the changes are mostly decorative. The conflict has not been completely settled. In April of this year, the huge gate separating the two communities had to be closed to contain the unrest of the Loyalists. Thousands of young people are numbered in radical groups on both sides.
Britain’s break with the European Union has dealt a tangible blow to the difficult peace process in Northern Ireland. The April protests were connected, among other things, with dissatisfaction with the Brexit agreement. Relative calm in the region largely depends on how the Irish Protocol can be changed.
The European Union made concessions, proposing to reduce and maximally simplify checks of cargoes arriving from Britain to Northern Ireland by 80 percent, to make an exception for British meat products, putting an end to the “sausage war”. But Great Britain is demanding more, insisting that the clause on the supremacy of the European Court, in which arising disputes should be dealt with, should be removed from the protocol. London is also opposed to the size of state subsidies in Northern Ireland in line with EU rules.
In December 2020, when the protocol was signed, the British government presented it as a reasonable compromise. Boris Johnson then had to “ensure Brexit”, so the agreement with the European Union in London was viewed as a framework, leaving much for later. This approach has already backfired.
According to the Financial Times, the US is refusing to lift the 25% tariff on British steel imports due to the unresolved Irish issue. The customs barrier was established by Trump. His successor Biden lifted these sanctions for the Eu-ropean Union. But he has a different attitude to Lon-don. Biden several times d-emanded that Johnson not undermine the peace pro-cess in Ireland in any way.
For the Johnson government, things are not going well. Everyone is unhappy with him: from loyalists in Northern Ireland to European officials and the US administration.
But the key problem is not even this, but the fact that relations with the European Union have become hostage to the domestic policy of Great Britain, where they are only now beginning to realize the real consequences of Brexit, having faced, among other things, a shortage of workers and a number of other difficulties. And this is the main reason for the acrobatic performances that Prime Minister Johnson performs today in the arena of the British “circus”, as the French president sarcastically assesses the current situation.