The two politicians who chair the Joint Brexit Monitoring Committee, the British Secretary of State for the EU, David Frost, and the Vice President of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, met this Wednesday in London to try to defuse the crisis unleashed around to Northern Ireland. Three and a half hours of talks have ended without result. “There has been no progress. We are going to continue talking ”, Frost assured at the start of the meeting. “The problem we have with the protocol [de Irlanda del Norte] it is that its application is causing serious disruptions in Northern Ireland (…) We must urgently find some solution that supports the peace process in Northern Ireland and allows everything to return to normal ”. The Johnson government accuses Brussels of a “legal purism” – in the words of Frost himself – which, in his opinion, could jeopardize political stability in the region. “Our shared priority must be to protect the Good Friday Agreement [el pacto que puso fin al conflicto de Irlanda del Norte en 1998]. I trust that the EU will show flexibility and agree to negotiate our proposals, to find solutions that are accepted by all communities [unionistas y republicanas]”Said the British politician in a statement issued hours before the meeting.
Brussels does not accept this attribution of blame and believes that the main reason for the problem lies in Downing Street’s unilateral decision to skip the commitments it signed in an international treaty. “If the United Kingdom continues with its unilateral actions in the coming weeks, the EU will not hesitate to react quickly, firmly and decisively to ensure that the obligations of international law are met,” Sefcovic wrote in a forum for the daily The Daily Telegraph.
The EU does not rule out a legal response, or an increase in its tariffs on products that Britain exports to Northern Ireland. There is the key to that dispute. Under the terms of the Protocol, a document annexed to the Withdrawal Agreement signed by London and Brussels, the Northern Irish region remains part of the EU Internal Market. It was the way to avoid the establishment of a new physical border – in the form of customs controls – on the island of Ireland, which would have put the peace reached in 1998 at risk. However, the many technical and bureaucratic obstacles to the goods that pass through the Irish Sea have sparked protests from the business community. And what is more serious: they have stirred the waters of the Northern Irish unionist community, which feels betrayed by the Johnson Government. In recent weeks, Northern Ireland has relived scenes of street violence such as has not been remembered for many years. The main pro-British political party, the DUP, is going through an internal crisis spurred by the fear of being overwhelmed at the polls by the republican Sinn Féin formation.
The same newspaper in which Boris Johnson, in his distant days as a correspondent in Brussels, launched inflammatory headlines against the EU, has now invented “the sausage war”, to reduce to simple and nationalist terms a matter of great technical complexity . Several products of intense exchange between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are affected by the new rules, or threatened by the imminent end of an extension that London intends to extend. Medicines authorized for use by the UK regulatory body (MHRA), for example, will no longer be able to be freely sold in Northern Ireland at the end of the year. The EU does not allow the export of meat foods if they are not previously frozen, and the rule should enter into force at the end of June, when the agreed truce expires. Hence the “sausages”, a widely consumed product in British culture. London asks Brussels for a greater margin in the face of an anecdotal case that, they say, presents little health risks and hardly affects the EU Internal Market.
Similar problems exist with the daily supplies of large British supermarket chains, with the exchange of plants or seeds, or with such trivial matters as pet passports. But there are also sectors in which the situation is more serious, such as steel. The EU imposes a 25% tariff on its import. Under that rule, the metal trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be subject to this surcharge. Although London agreed to a duty-free annual amount on its exports to the EU, no one estimated that shipments to the Northern Irish region could soon exhaust that quota.
Johnson and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, agreed this Wednesday, in a telephone conversation, to address the issue of Northern Ireland in a separate meeting, during the G-7 summit that will be held from Friday in the British town of Cornwall. London wants to avoid at all costs that the explosive standoff over Northern Ireland, closely followed by Joe Biden’s American Administration, from contaminating a summit in which Johnson has bet heavily to fix the UK’s new international position in the post-Brexit era. There are several voices, however, that these days have accused Downing Street of signing a Northern Ireland Protocol without measuring the scope of its consequences with the strategic purpose of accelerating the exit from the EU as soon as possible.
“None of those involved in the negotiations will believe that the Government [británico] he signed something without understanding the real consequences of what he was signing, ”Gavin Barwell, who was former Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff, said Wednesday. “I think your calculations [de Johnson] they consisted of signing what was put on the table, and seeing if it could be changed later. The EU has reached the same conclusion, and that is why it has hardened its position ”, Barwell told the BBC.