OPN Ireland-UK map
Northern Ireland protocol: Unless both sides can reach an agreement, there is the prospect of a trade war Image Credit: Shutterstock

After months of talks between European Union officials and representatives of the United Kingdom, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson published a Bill on Monday that plans to redraw some of the terms of the Brexit agreement covering how goods move between the main nations of England, Scotland and Wales, across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland.

While officials in London say the legal changes are needed to ensure Northern Ireland’s trade is protected and makes good some of the anomalies of the existing so-called ‘protocol’, the many opponents to the move say that the Bill effectively means the UK is ripping up a negotiated international treaty and is acting unilaterally to protect a small but vocal community in the province.

The European Commission — the Cabinet-like body that oversees the day-to-day running of the bloc that represents 500 million people in a common market across 27 nations of western Europe — has warned it will take “proportionate action” to secure the legal implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol after the UK government published the legislation that will override the mechanism.

Legal proceedings against the UK

The Commission has already signalled it would begin with the resumption of legal proceedings against the UK, which it suspended in September, over breaching the withdrawal treaty of 2020.

Unless both sides can reach an agreement, there is the prospect of a trade war across the English Channel, the consequences of which would exacerbate the fragile economic situation where high inflation, high energy prices and the aftermaths of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic are weighing on UK consumers.

The prospect of a trade war, however, seems somewhat distant that critics within the Conservative party have already indicated that they will vote against the Bill when it comes before Parliament.

The Bill will also face opposition in the House of Lords, and a majority of Northern Ireland’s Assembly, or regional parliament, have already said they are opposed to the Bill.

For Johnson, who leads a party when 42 per cent of its MPs lack confidence in the Prime Minister, the timing of the Bill is not uncoincidental. He has staked his reputation on ‘Getting Brexit Done’. He did so, but willingly endorsed a Brexit deal that drew the customs border down the Irish Sea.

The underlying principle here, however, is that the UK agreed to a deal, now is seen as reneging. That is an unwelcome development now, when the focus should be on dealing with the real problems faced by Britons in this cost-of-living crisis.