United Kingdom – Northern Ireland Protocol Complicates Trade Negotiations

United Kingdom – Northern Ireland Protocol Complicates Trade Negotiations

The status of Northern Ireland (NI) has consistently been one of the most contentious aspects of Brexit. The tenuous political quagmire, combined with the fact that it hosts the only land border between the UK and the EU, has caused a plethora of economic and sociopolitical problems. In an attempt to prevent the creation of a hard land border in Ireland, the UK elected to let NI remain part of the EU single market. While this has prevented dividing Ireland, it has strained relations between NI and the rest of the UK.

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Throughout 2021, aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol have started to come into effect. In short, NI still follows many of the guidelines set by the EU while remaining part of the UK.  Unfortunately this means that many goods coming into NI from the UK must be inspected upon arrival, significantly slowing down transit times between the two entities. The implementation of the NI Protocol has been fraught, to say the least.  

Brussels has asserted its commitment to the protocol, going so far as to threaten legal action over the protocol’s implementation. PM Boris Johnson appears to be endeavoring to compromise the treaty. Unfortunately, it is NI that is caught up in the middle, left to feel the trade disputes most acutely. According to 2018 trade data, Great Britain is NI’s largest import and export partner, meaning that most of NI’s imports and exports are affected by the protocol’s trade restrictions. While the protocol has prevented the dreaded hard Irish border, it has thrown the largest section of Northern Irish trade into commotion. 

What Keeps The Situation From Progressing

The EU’s commitment to Brexit and the NI Protocol as written can arguably be seen as undue rigidity in an uncertain political environment. By carrying out Brexit, the UK told the EU that they did not see their interests as aligned as they had been in the past. As a result, there is added pressure on Brussels to demonstrate that EU membership is preferable to nonmembership. What this comes down to is, as the Economist puts it, a lack of trust between both entities. It would appear that neither party feels it can give ground in the debates without running the risk of eroding even more of their international sway. 

Against this background, regional instability may be cause for concern. Amongst Protestant and Unionist groups in NI, confidence in NI’s regional government, Stormont, has been declining since it’s reestablishment in 2007. The rate of support has declined from 72% to 58%. This ebbing devotion to the establishment suggests a realistic probability that Irish reunification could be gaining favor in NI. The UK risks alienating their biggest supporters in the region by disregarding their domestic concerns.

While the present climate in NI appears to be safe and secure, continued political and economic instability presents a realistic probability of further disruption, and perhaps a reunification referendum. Per the Good Friday Agreement, the Republic of Ireland and the UK agree to respect the decision of the citizens of NI as to whether or not they wish to remain in the union. With Scotland’s independence an increasingly common talking point, a lack of collective and effective rule between the UK’s constituent states prompts analysts to question the future of the union as a whole.  

The Impact on the Northern Irish

belfast mural

“Free Derry corner, Northern Ireland” by Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

With COVID-19 continuing to ravage the world, policy disputes that limit the food available in Northern Irish supermarkets cause notable disruptions to normal life. The civil unrest that swept through NI last Spring, with arson, violent assault, and hijackings seen throughout urban centers, signals that tempers are at a boiling point.  Yet, the political establishment’s commitment to peaceful demonstration and maintenance of the security enjoyed in the region since 1998 is comforting to those looking to NI’s immediate future. However, just like in the 20th century, disregard for the constituent country’s unique problems could be the tinder that reignites republican fire

Will These Sorts of Disputes Continue?

Suggestions such as adopting the Swiss food safety model would allow for much of the food in NI to comply with EU standards, easing the most impactful effects of Brexit on daily life in NI.  This is a model for which the EU has voiced support, as it is a policy that has a proven track record. This change would also not violate any standing agreements between the UK and EU, as technically it would be domestic British policy. However, it is improbable as it could be seen as another attempt to bring Britain back in line with Europe. 

That a dispute over the refrigerated sausage trade has caused international tension demonstrates the omnipresent effect of Brexit on British life. While London quarrels with the EU, Belfast bears the brunt of it. Despite being subject to EU economic standards, NI no longer has a voice in influencing EU trade policy. 

Credit: https://www.economicsobservatory.com/how-is-brexit-affecting-northern-irelands-economy

Credit: https://www.economicsobservatory.com/how-is-brexit-affecting-northern-irelands-economy

This situation has caught the eyes of organizations around the world. The Congressional Research Service described the situation in NI as untenable, and called into question the region’s continued membership in the UK. Despite the lion’s share of NI’s international trade being with Great Britain, a lack of confidence in the region’s economic reliability could weaken confidence in the UK’s international tact. 

Johnson and Emmanuel Macron disputed over NI prior to the June G7 Summit, with Macron affirming his commitment to the NI agreement as written and opposing renegotiation. This shows that how the UK is handling the protocol is affecting international relations with Europe.  

France was among the several European nations forecasted to follow the UK in leaving the EU, but no countries have attempted. Reportedly, the UK’s handling of Brexit has shown EU member states the value in remaining in the union, making further exits highly unlikely. However, not everyone is happy in their current national union, as a majority of NI citizens believe in Irish Reunification within the next 25 years. 

Recent polls show that in NI, this idea is gaining popularity, particularly among those under 45. While there is not yet a majority favoring reunification in the region, there is a majority supporting holding a referendum on the issue in the near future. The only true certainty in this web of international trade is that continued instability makes cooperation between the EU and UK unlikely, and further disruption in NI probable.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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