Relations between Britain and the European Union were thrown into a fresh crisis Friday, just weeks after the two concluded a trade deal to end the long-running saga of Brexit, the British departure from the bloc after four decades of membership.
EU officials say they plan to launch legal action soon against Britain for its unilateral decision to delay by several months the implementation of part of the Brexit deal that requires customs checks on goods being traded between Britain and its Northern Ireland province.
The delay, London says, will give traders and consumers in British-ruled Northern Ireland time to adjust to the new and complicated trading arrangements that require, among other things, health inspections and certificates for food and livestock shipments.
Britain and the EU agreed to the new rules to avoid the establishment of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which would have breached the U.S.-brokered 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
'Very negative surprise'
Under the Brexit deal, the British province remains in Europe’s tariff-free single market. Since the final Brexit deal was inked in December, the province’s supermarkets have complained of shortages of basic British food staples.
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president, told the Financial Times that the announcement midweek by the British government of a delay in implementation was a “very negative surprise.”
On Thursday, EU officials threatened to impose trade tariffs on Britain and to suspend parts of the Brexit trade deal if London didn't back down. Sefcovic said officials were preparing a legal action, which would most likely be brought before the European Court of Justice, and “it would be really something coming to our table very soon.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, told reporters the EU would have no option but to resort to legal action because it was negotiating with a partner “it simply couldn’t trust.” Because of the dispute, the European Parliament this week announced it was postponing setting a date for ratifying the Brexit deal.
The dispute may appear at first glance to be a dry and even obscure trade matter, but analysts say it has the potential not only to worsen already frayed relations between Britain and Europe but also risks dangerous political developments in Ireland.
Those in turn could impact Britain’s relationship with the Biden administration, which has emphasized that Brexit should in no way undermine the Good Friday peace agreement.
That agreement ended decades of sectarian violence between mainly Protestant pro-British loyalist groups and the mainly Catholic IRA, which waged an insurgency to try to push British forces out of Northern Ireland and London to relinquish control of the province.
Pressure on Johnson
London’s decision to delay implementation for six months of the protocol requiring customs checks came as lawmakers from Britain’s ruling Conservative Party and from pro-British unionist parties in Northern Ireland increased their efforts to persuade Prime Minister Boris Johnson to abandon or to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the EU.
They argue the Northern Ireland protocol is unworkable and will increase costs for the province’s businesses, which in turn will be passed on in higher prices to consumers. The province’s supermarkets say they have found it hard to get staple British food products because imports have been blocked at ports by an overzealous application of the Brexit trading rules, as well as confusion over what paperwork is required.
The Conservative and unionist lawmakers also fear that the new trading arrangements will end up tearing the province away from Britain.
Ominously, Northern Ireland’s loyalist paramilitary groups warned Johnson this week that they were withdrawing their support for the Good Friday peace agreement until the Brexit protocol was abandoned. Their withdrawal prompted fears of a return to violence, although David Campbell, a leading loyalist figure, said loyalist opposition to the Brexit deal would be “peaceful, democratic and constitutional.”
"We are looking to the prime minister to use every effort he can to rectify the problems with the protocol. Let’s hope that those issues are resolved,” Campbell told the BBC. “I have no doubt that but for the present pandemic you would have already seen street protests and demonstrations. Our history shows that street protests and demonstrations are very difficult to control and maintain peacefully.”
A hope for no violence
After the announcement by loyalist groups, Jonathan Powell, a chief negotiator for the British government in the 1998 peace talks, said he was dismayed.
"I think it's a mistake, but I do pin my hopes on the promise that they will not go back to violence and that there's no intention of returning to the old days. I think we should deal with this as a political issue to which people object strongly and find the solution that way,” he said in a broadcast interview.
The first minister of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, accused the EU of taking a “very belligerent approach” to the difficulties caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol. She welcomed Johnson’s decision to delay implementation.
Johnson has threatened before to scrap customs checks on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland — a threat that nearly wrecked the overall Brexit deal signed in December. This time he’s said a delay is needed to avoid significant immediate disruption to everyday life in Northern Ireland. He has said the move is “temporary and technical” and designed “to ensure there are no barriers in the Irish Sea, to make sure things flow freely.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, warned British ministers recently that their efforts to negotiate a trade deal with the U.S. would be rebuffed if Brexit ended up wrecking the 1998 peace agreement.
Just before last November’s U.S. presidential elections, Joe Biden was similarly blunt, saying in a tweet: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.” He added: “Any trade deal between the U.S. and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”