The author is CEO of Europe at Eurasia Group
By threatening the EU with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, Britain risks once again making its wishes a reality. There may be disagreements in the EU. There will not be – if there is a push – the sharp divisions that London imagines.
Despite a commitment to intensify negotiations and a slightly softer tone last week from Brexit Minister Lord David Frost and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, Brussels fears the British government will announce its intention to suspend parts of the protocol, presumably in December.
The British calculation is that member states will stand together to make trouble in public, but much less aggressive in practice. London believes that the Irish and French are isolated and that the Dutch, Germans and Poles will oppose any suspension of the trade agreement between Britain and the EU.
While it is true that persistent Brexit problems create the risk of “Irish fatigue” – something that Dublin is very aware of – the UK Government’s assessment of potential EU divisions is erroneous.
First, its characterization of the German and Dutch position is simply wrong. Secondly, Poland understands that it cannot expect EU support across its borders with Belarus and does not support Ireland in its border issues with the United Kingdom.
There is a strong current of thought in Whitehall that member states are not particularly concerned about Northern Ireland – certainly not enough to risk their commercial interests. British officials believe that many EU capitals see little objective risk to the single market if uncontrolled goods flow from the UK to Northern Ireland. There is also a belief in London that Member States are frustrated with the Commission for not delivering the constructive strategic relationship with Britain that they seek.
The government is betting that the deal it can secure with an Article 16 notice will be better than anything it can secure without one. It wants a controlled explosion that allows an agreement to come together in 30 days of negotiations after notification. It would never have to suspend those parts of the protocol which it claims cause “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” and a “diversion of trade”.
This is a huge bet.
The EU will see the government’s use of Article 16 as the culmination of a process of “bad faith” that began with the single market bill, the unilateral extension of grace periods to facilitate trade between Britain and Northern Ireland and the command paper in July. out of the UK’s plans to rewrite the protocol. The latter, EU officials say, will require a fundamental reconstruction of it – much more than the “renegotiation” Lord Frost demands and which the EU refuses to entertain.
Brussels suspects that the ultimate British goal is to establish facts on the spot. The aim would be to show that there is little risk to the integrity of the EU single market if goods from the UK destined for Northern Ireland remain free of customs and regulatory controls.
As the Commission will not force Dublin to impose a border on the island of Ireland, over time there will be increased pressure to carry out controls on goods en route from Ireland to the rest of the EU. But the EU is determined never to let Ireland separate from the internal market. It will be confronted with what it sees as British blackmail – forced to accept the risk of an unchecked, open Irish border or to jeopardize Ireland’s place in the internal market.
Nor will the EU allow the creation of a new reality that member states believe is contrary to their interests – especially if Britain deviates from EU rules and standards in the future.
It is possible to start a process to conclude the post-Brexit trade agreement – or a message to consider such a move. But while it has been a useful rallying cry in recent weeks, and the reason why many in the EU believe Lord Frost is engaging more constructively in the negotiations, it will not be easy to reach a consensus on full termination. Partial termination of the trade agreement – apart from chapters on social security and police cooperation – is more plausible.
Brussels and its member states are also exploring more subtle, legally creative ways to attack Britain immediately without waiting months for arbitration or a ruling by the European Court of Justice. This could involve tariffs on sensitive UK goods, putting London under pressure to react in kind. An explosion can be difficult to control.
British officials say they will not undermine the protocol if they issue an Article 16 notice. But the relationship between Britain and the EU is terrible. The EU will see it as a hostile act and provide a swift, powerful response. It would require a brave, perhaps foolish, prime minister to bet on the opposite.