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Tue 25 January 2022

At home and abroad, the Vote Leave Government’s honeymoon period is over, reports Mike Buckley

Boris Johnson has in recent weeks been forced to face the consequences of at least some of his actions. His attempt to neuter Parliament’s Standards Committee, and its decision to sanction Conservative MP Owen Paterson for lobbying, was a political disaster. A few weeks later, his contempt for rules and his repeated lies have been brought further into the public eye, after the reports of numerous Christmas parties held in Downing Street last year – in breach of COVID-19 restrictions.

The result is supposed allies including Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, and Johnson’s former employer the Spectator briefing against him. Backbench Conservative MPs are reportedly livid, while their party is sinking rapidly in the polls.

What’s more, in the realm of international affairs, Johnson is beginning to face the consequences of his Brexit choices.

Despite US President Joe Biden having made it abundantly clear that he has little interest in concluding a trade deal with the UK, it remains a goal for Johnson and his Government.

Johnson, like the rest of us, knows that no amount of trade deals with the rest of the world can compensate for lost trade with the EU. Even if a US trade deal were agreed, it would benefit the UK economy by a mere 0.02% of GDP, far from the 4% lost through Johnson’s hard Brexit.

Of particular concern to the Government now is that the Biden administration has decided not to remove Trump-era tariffs on UK steel and aluminium, reportedly due to concerns that the UK is set to abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of the Brexit agreement which governs trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. This is despite the US agreeing to remove those same tariffs on trade with the EU.

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Both the US and EU have repeatedly warned Johnson that unilateral suspension of the Protocol could threaten peace on the island of Ireland. Yet that is exactly what David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, continues to threaten.

Frost meets his EU counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, for weekly discussions in an attempt to resolve disagreements. For their part, the EU offered amendments containing most of the changes wanted by Northern Ireland businesses which, if implemented, would dramatically reduce border checks.

Yet for Frost, the offer is never quite enough. “Our position remains as before,” he said after their last meeting, “that the threshold has been met to use Article 16 safeguards if solutions cannot be found.” Article 16 is the formal mechanism that would be used to suspend the Protocol.

The reality in Northern Ireland is entirely different. Frost’s main bone of contention is that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) retains oversight of the Protocol, a legal necessity for the EU given Northern Ireland’s continued presence in the single market for goods.

The majority (52%) of people in Northern Ireland believe that the Protocol is a good thing. A larger majority (67%) recognise its necessity.

Most businesses want certainty and are keen for a line to be drawn under negotiations. The ECJ “has not been a topic of discussion,” among members said Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium. Seamus Leheny of Logistics UK in Northern Ireland said “not a single member has raised the issue”.

Likewise, ordinary people in Northern Ireland seek an end to Brexit uncertainty – that has endured for several years. In particular, people living near the Irish border are particularly fearful of significant change.

A study led by Queen’s University in Belfast found that ongoing uncertainty had caused border residents to draw on anxiety-filled memories from the securitised border of the era before the Good Friday Agreement.

These fears are now being projected onto the next generation, even those too young to remember life before the Agreement. Brexit has reintroduced, if not the physical border, the psychological borders of the past, the report concluded.

A later study found that residents were positive about the Protocol, since it offers “dual market accessibility” and avoided “a hard Brexit [and] hard border”. Some 57% of people feared that ongoing tensions could make the benefits of the current Brexit agreement redundant or lead to the removal of the Protocol itself.

Most participants stressed the “importance of cross-border cooperation as the only way forward,” said Dr Milena Komarova, one of the report’s authors.


Tensions Rise

Ongoing uncertainty also threatens the peace process. A new report from a cross-border panel set up as part of efforts to sustain Northern Ireland’s power sharing administration, states that “paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger” and the “reaction to Brexit, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, has led to new complexities and increasing prominence of paramilitarism.”

Yet, despite the evident damage being done to community cohesion – and the possibility that ongoing disputes could encourage renewed violence – the Government refuses to fully implement the Protocol, as it promised in 2019. It refuses also to accept the EU’s offer of changes to the Protocol which would, if adopted, dramatically reduce border checks, an outcome likely to reduce tensions in loyalist communities.

Johnson’s refusal to implement the Protocol or to fully engage with the EU’s unexpectedly generous offer of easements has in the end only further narrowed his options. The EU has made clear that a different UK attitude could lead to further concessions. However, the UK’s abrasive attitude continues to prevent a good-will solution.

“We knew that the red lines the UK drew in negotiations would create practical problems. We don’t think it’s our role every time a problem does come up to start trying to solve the UK’s problem on its behalf. There is a point at which we have to say – given the UK’s position on the Protocol – you have to face the consequences of your choices,”one senior EU official said this week.

Similarly, the EU is relaxed about Frost’s threat to use Article 16. If invoked, it would simply lead to more talks in which the UK would encounter the same red lines, still subject to more or less the same obligations. Continued failure to comply would, it is believed, result in a robust EU response including trade barriers, further harming our already Brexit-damaged economy.

Johnson therefore finds himself facing the consequences of his actions at home and abroad. His personal brand is tarnished in the Conservative Party following a series of domestic scandals. It is damaged abroad given his failure to implement the Protocol or negotiate with the EU in good faith. The result is continued tariffs on steel and aluminium, diminished prospects of an US trade deal, and an EU fast running out of patience.

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