5 things to watch for in the latest Northern Ireland Brexit bust-up
LONDON — A battered and bruised Boris Johnson is trying to shake up Brexit talks — again.
Just a week after he saw off a Conservative party revolt against his leadership, the U.K. prime minister’s government will on Monday present a bill in the House of Commons allowing it to waive controversial post-Brexit rules on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, known as the Northern Ireland protocol.
The bill is expected to be published around lunchtime, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will address MPs in the Commons mid-afternoon.
EU diplomats have warned the bill will unleash an angry response and legal action in the comings days, and you can expect howls of opposition from Brexit opponents in Westminster — but the row won’t end there.
Here are five more big things to watch for in the coming days as the controversy unfolds.
Will London go further than its previous plan?
Britain and the EU have been in (fairly unproductive) talks on the protocol — a key part of the Brexit divorce deal — for months, and the U.K. is hoping for a game-changer with its new bill.
After Truss took over the Brexit brief from David Frost last year, Brexit-watchers have been trying to determine whether she’ll adopt a tougher line on the arrangement than her predecessor, who penned a paper in July 2021 outlining the U.K.’s ideas.
The protocol was agreed by the U.K. and EU after painstaking negotiations in 2019 and introduces customs and sanitary controls on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland’s ports. But London argues that the setup is undermining hard-won political power sharing in Northern Ireland and imposing overly burdensome barriers to trade.
Brussels meanwhile contends that the arrangement is needed to avoid a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — flagged as a potential threat to peace on the island of Ireland — while still protecting the bloc’s single market. The European Commission pitched changes of its own in a bid to break the deadlock, but the U.K. does not believe they go far enough.
Monday’s law will certainly mark a ratcheting up of London’s tactics, even if the policy ideas are pretty familiar to those acquainted with the 2021 plan.
If passed, the law will effectively allow U.K. ministers to unilaterally stop applying part of the protocol they don’t like, without running that past Brussels.
Truss has once again floated the creation of a frictionless “green lane” for trusted British traders moving goods into Northern Ireland that aren’t intended for the EU single market, coupled with a “red lane” for full checks and customs controls for goods destined for the EU. The U.K. foreign secretary has promised that businesses in Northern Ireland will be able to choose between meeting British or EU standards under a new dual regulatory regime.
One new flashpoint will be whether the bill includes an automatic sunset clause to scrap EU rules in Northern Ireland after a set number of years — a demand reportedly made by Conservative Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) during meetings with Truss. Northern Ireland’s Secretary Brandon Lewis kept quiet on the Sunday political media round, refusing to clarify whether such a clause had made it into the bill despite opposition from Cabinet ministers.
Watch also for any remarks on whether the government will trigger Article 16 of the protocol, the clause intended to allow either side to unilaterally override some aspects of it.
Before dramatically resigning last year, Frost tried to persuade Johnson to trigger it. That didn’t happen, but the U.K. could still invoke it as the bill passes through parliament in order to introduce changes to customs paperwork and controls before the whole thing actually becomes law.
How hard will the UK go on the EU’s top court?
There are concerns the draft legislation may now be more hardline than the 2021 plan when it comes to the role of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) as the final arbiter of disputes in Northern Ireland.
The devil will be in the details as to whether Britain vows to ignore the CJEU altogether or tries to give it a more discreet or limited role, perhaps through the creation of an arbitration panel like the one drawn up for disputes with the EU under the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Lewis rolled the pitch for such a plan Sunday, telling Times Radio that “a more traditional independent arbitration process” would be “a much more logical way” to solve disputes over trade rules in Northern Ireland. Yet the CJEU’s role remains the Commission’s biggest red line.
Domestic political wrangling looks to have played a part in the U.K.’s shift here. The Sunday Times reported this weekend that Johnson sided with senior Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak — who opposed Truss’ more hardline version — at a crunch meeting on the proposals. But the prime minister is reported to have shifted position the next day to accept tweaks proposed by the ERG. A source present at the meeting told the Sunday Times to expect “a very hardline position” on the role of the CJEU.
Removing the CJEU altogether remains “a very important issue” for the ERG — and could be the factor that determines how votes on the legislation in the House of Commons pan out, the group’s deputy chairman David Jones said.
How will Northern Ireland’s unionists and Westminster’s Brexiteers react?
Johnson’s government has consulted Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the broad outline of its plan. But Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist force — which bitterly opposes the protocol on the grounds it drives a wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain — remains suspicious.
The DUP is refusing to join the region’s power-sharing government unless the protocol is ditched, and it’s keeping its counsel ahead as the legislative journey for the bill gets started.
“I think it would probably be very foolish for us to give a view on something that could be changed through its passage through the House of Commons or the House of Lords,” DUP MP Sammy Wilson said.
In recent days, the DUP’s anger has been targeted at Dublin rather than London — with party leader Jeffrey Donaldson accusing the Irish government of being “tone deaf” to unionist concerns over the protocol.
That focus could shift fast if the U.K. government is seen to have underdelivered. Lewis admitted Sunday that the DUP has given no assurance to the U.K. government that it will rejoin power-sharing in Northern Ireland after the bill is published.
Meanwhile, Brexiteers in Westminster have warned they will vote down the bill in the Commons if it does not neutralize the Northern Ireland protocol. Tory lawmaker and ERG member Bernard Jenkin told the Commons he’s ready to vote against the proposals if that goal is not fulfilled.
Doing the maths on all this is somewhat tricky, as the group refuses to reveal how many members it has. Jones said the ERG has “just enough” MPs to block the bill if it’s not to Brexiteers’ liking.
As the past week in U.K. politics has just shown, Johnson doesn’t exactly have the tightest grip on party discipline — so there could be trouble ahead.
How will Washington respond?
On the other side of the Tory spectrum, Remainers and other Conservatives harboring concerns about the bill are mulling whether it’s better to try and amend it or to vote it down. A core group can be expected to oppose the law loudly from the start, but a few others will wait to see how Washington reacts.
Many U.S. Democrats take a keen interest in peace in Northern Ireland, and President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have previously warned that they will not welcome any attempts to undermine the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
The U.K. government argues its plan actually protects that set-up, but Pelosi issued a punchy statement warning London to forget about a post-Brexit trade deal with Washington if it forges ahead. That’s focusing minds in Westminster.
“If the U.S. is very damning then that would strengthen mood,” one Conservative MP said. This is “because U.S. support for a trade deal is fundamental to demonstrating success of Brexit,” they added. “If the government cannot secure that, then there will be heavy criticism. A fight with the EU is priced in. But be aware that this is an issue on which the PM could also rally pro-Brexit support, and the U.S. ‘interference’ would cut both ways.”
Mary Lou McDonald, president of Irish republican party Sinn Féin, told Sky News Sunday that the U.K. can expect considerable backlash from the U.S., where politicians “know that what is at play here is a very, very deliberate set of actions that undermine the Good Friday Agreement.”
Will anyone resign?
The last time Britain took unilateral Brexit action, the government’s top law adviser resigned, so watch for similarly dramatic moves from senior officials and ministers as the U.K. again goes it alone.
Johnson’s government is already in a restive mood after last week’s confidence vote in the prime minister, with some Conservatives on the government payroll reportedly wavering over whether or not to support Johnson.
Tory MPs who oppose the bill are already circulating a briefing document setting out the reasons why they intend to vote against it. The document, seen by PoliticsHome, states that the bill is “damaging to everything the U.K. and Conservatives stand for” and “breaks international law.”
Foreign Office Minister Vicky Ford, Treasury Minister John Glen and Environment Minister Jo Churchill, who opposed Brexit during the 2016 referendum campaign, are seen as being on resignation-watch since last week’s vote, according to the Sun on Sunday. Hold on to your hats.
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