In regular intervals along the M5 motorway as Somerset gave way to Devon and that eased into Cornwall last week, portable electronic signs warned motorists that road closures were in effect in the St. Ives area — all because of security measures for the Group of Seven summit there. There should have been other signs telling the visiting foreign delegations to be kind to their host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
As it was, Boris had a rough time from US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ursula von der Layen who is President of the European Union, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council — along with Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi. And all had one clear message for their host — don’t mess with the Northern Ireland protocol that puts the customs border between the UK and EU down the Irish Sea and treats the British-governed province as if it remained inside the 27 nation bloc. And don’t do anything that potentially threatens the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of political and sectarian violence in the province — a conflict that claimed 3,600 lives and injured another 36,000.
For Johnson, the uniting of the European delegations along with the US sent a clear message that not abiding by the terms of the Brexit withdrawal Agreement — a deal he negotiated, championed and won a general election majority on — would have a severe and almost immediate impact on both political and trade relations between London and Brussels and Washington.
To avoid a return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to its south — the only land frontier between the UK and the EU — Johnson agreed that the customs border would run down the Irish Sea, treating the whole island of Ireland as if it was in the EU in its entirety. That was an arrangement the UK readily agreed to, signed into law and registered with the United Nations in its mandate to oversee international accords and treaties. It was an arrangement Johnson was warned time and time again was fraught with pitfalls, but one that he and his Conservative ministers dismissed as nothing more than requiring a little more paperwork and form-filling.
Now, six months after the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has taken effect and its conditions are being tightened — all part of the agreed deal — Johnson and his ministers want to ignore the protocol and walk away from their deal. Imagine buying insurance on a car and that when you have to use it, the company tells you that the terms and clauses don’t actually mean what they say.
As things stand now, the shelves of Northern Irish grocery stores are bare of foodstuffs that before the Brexit deal took effect were readily available. Because Britain is well and truly out of the EU, that means it is subject to veterinary checks on animals, biological sampling, tests and restrictions — all to ensure its goods moving in the EU area across the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland meet the EU’s strict regulatory standards.
Things like British sausages, for example, need to be checked. Soo too horticultural items and pretty much anything that before Brexit used to move freely within the common market of the EU. Hey, but that’s Britain left, and now that the effects of Brexit are coming home to roost, Johnson and his ministers want things their way now.
Johnson is calling for common sense. Common sense would tell you that it was nuts to leave the EU. He’s asking for some rules to be relaxed — but if Britain was relaxed about rules, it wouldn’t have reason to opt out of Europe in the first instance.
Northern Ireland and the UK
Before leaving Paris to attend the summit, President Macron seemed to articulate that Northern Ireland was separate from the rest of the UK because it adhered to EU customs rules. The misspeak was raised in a meeting between Johnson and Macron. The British PM told his French counterpart that it would be unreasonable, for example if Toulouse sausages could not be shipped to Paris. Macron, rightly so, was quick to point out that both Toulouse and Paris are part of the same country and both are within the EU — making the analogy moot.
But this is far more than a row over sausages. It is a debate that has real meat. The Biden administration has made it clear — and this is one issue that unites Democrats and Republicans in a bitterly divided Washington — there will be no trade agreement between the US and UK if London doesn’t abide by the terms of the Brexit agreement. As things stand now, Australia has pulled out of a potential Free Trade Agreement with the UK over concerns over agricultural produce.
In Northern Ireland, the issue of Brexit remains deeply polarising between nationalist and loyalist communities. As far as Irish nationalists are concerned, anything that weakens the ties between the province and its British rulers is to be welcomed as driving the argument for a united Ireland. For loyalists, it is a sign that the traditional ties are being weakened because the province is being treated differently than England, Scotland and Wales.
The reality is this situation is exactly what Boris Johnson signed up to last December — and did so knowing the potential consequences. Right now, to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. And dangerous even.