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Interview: Brexit and European Options
The Hundred #14: June 7, 2022
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Anand Menon is a Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London and Director of the UK in a Changing Europe. Our questions are in bold, his answers in quotation marks.
Let’s start with the basics. What is the Northern Ireland protocol?
“The Northern Protocol is an agreement between the UK and the EU that is meant to avoid the need for Brexit leading to a border within the island of Ireland. One of the few things the UK and the EU both agreed on was the fact that there could not be a border between the north and the south of Ireland and the Protocol is their way of avoiding it by effectively placing the customs and regulatory border between the UK and the European Union in the Irish Sea.”
What is the UK government demanding?
“The UK government is claiming that the EU is being unreasonable in the way it’s carrying out checks on that border and that therefore those checks are more onerous than the government had expected when they signed the Protocol in the first place. What the UK is saying is not only that the EU should be more reasonable and more flexible and more pragmatic in the way it is implementing the Protocol but also that actually the EU should not have a formal part in the governance of Northern Ireland and particularly the EU’s court should not have any formal role in overseeing the implementation of the Protocol within Northern Ireland.”
“This is an argument that has been brewing for a long time, arguably since the Protocol came into effect and since the Joint Committee sat down and tried to negotiate how it worked. This is if you like yet another step in what has been a long process. I think it’s come to a head now partly as a result of the elections to Stormont that took place in May. The DUP are saying that they will block the creation of an Executive unless there’s some resolution to the question of the Protocol.”
What could London do if they can’t agree with the EU?
“There’s very little that London can do unilaterally to solve the problem. There is this bill going through parliament which arguably is meant to try and give the government power to override parts of the Protocol but that will not solve the problem. That might simply create a standoff and a potential trade war with the European Union.”
What options would the EU have to respond?
“The European Union, of course, in the event that London acted unilaterally in abrogating a bilateral agreement, could respond with tariffs and other forms of economic retaliation itself just at the moment that the UK is suffering from a cost of living crisis. This wouldn’t be ideal for either side.”
To what extent is this about Boris Johnson or the Conservatives? How might this be handled differently by a Labour government?
“Part of this has to be explained, I think, in terms of the Conservative Party and the precarious position of Boris Johnson. I think Boris Johnson is partly at least trying to shore up his position with the sort of Brexit ultras in his party by having this fight with the European Union.
Labour are not keen to revisit Brexit but the one thing that Labour would do in power, I think, is sign a veterinary agreement with the EU that would reduce the number of checks you need between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
What are the broader international factors?
“Washington behind the scenes is putting a lot of pressure on the UK not to fiddle with the Protocol, I think.
There are some in the UK that think that the context of the Ukraine war gives the UK greater leverage over the EU. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. I think if the UK were to act unilaterally, the EU would retaliate while making sure that channels of communication to allow them to cooperate with the UK over Ukraine would be maintained.”
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