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Renegotiation Isn’t Disaster in Northern Ireland

A new deal can be worked out that keeps peace and trade intact.

Ibrahim-Azeem-foreign-policy-columnist11
Azeem Ibrahim
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Then-Brexit negotiator David Frost leaves EU headquarters.
Then-Brexit negotiator David Frost leaves EU headquarters.
David Frost, then-Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, leaves after negotiations at European Union headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 19. John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

David Frost, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s longtime Brexit advisor and functionary, recently resigned from the government after a turbulent couple of weeks for Johnson. Frost was integrally connected to the British strategy of dealing with the European Union and largely the bearer of U.K. policy. His speeches set the government tone and served as opening gambits for future negotiation.

Frost’s resignation leaves some confusion about the shape of Britain’s future Brexit policy. Debate for the past few months has centered on whether the United Kingdom will terminate the prevailing legal and economic arrangements along the border with Ireland by triggering Article 16 of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol—which allows either the EU or U.K. to dissolve the arrangements in the event of unspecified serious difficulties. Frost’s departure solves none of these questions. U.S. and European policymakers have greeted his departure with surprise and uncertainty.

But Frost’s resignation was largely about domestic politics, namely his objections to Johnson’s “Plan B” restrictions to arrest the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19. Frost’s departure does not mean the U.K.’s position on Northern Ireland has fundamentally changed—nor should it be a prompt for dramatic steps by Britain’s partners in the United States or EU.

David Frost, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s longtime Brexit advisor and functionary, recently resigned from the government after a turbulent couple of weeks for Johnson. Frost was integrally connected to the British strategy of dealing with the European Union and largely the bearer of U.K. policy. His speeches set the government tone and served as opening gambits for future negotiation.

Frost’s resignation leaves some confusion about the shape of Britain’s future Brexit policy. Debate for the past few months has centered on whether the United Kingdom will terminate the prevailing legal and economic arrangements along the border with Ireland by triggering Article 16 of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol—which allows either the EU or U.K. to dissolve the arrangements in the event of unspecified serious difficulties. Frost’s departure solves none of these questions. U.S. and European policymakers have greeted his departure with surprise and uncertainty.

But Frost’s resignation was largely about domestic politics, namely his objections to Johnson’s “Plan B” restrictions to arrest the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19. Frost’s departure does not mean the U.K.’s position on Northern Ireland has fundamentally changed—nor should it be a prompt for dramatic steps by Britain’s partners in the United States or EU.

When Frost, then still in office, spoke at the Conservative Party Conference in October, it is understandable that eyebrows were raised in Washington. Frost said that the Northern Ireland Protocol had “begun to come apart even more quickly than we feared” and that significant change to the deal agreed on before the pandemic was needed to avert a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the European Union. According to some in Washington, the British are about to implode the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and peace across the island of Ireland, to relitigate a bad deal they foisted on themselves.

For many in Washington, the Northern Ireland Protocol appeared a solution to the problem of Brexit, not a source of contention and difficulty in itself. U.S. policymakers are also given to see discussions of the island of Ireland through the prism of the Troubles and the fragility of the peace that has been secured, in part by U.S. effort, since. Any disturbance to the status quo places that peace at risk. Brexit was already a blow; a hard border would be worse.

From the outside, the protocol might seem almost ideal. When enacted, it avoided a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by in effect creating a unified customs area across the island, and erecting a regulatory barrier in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the island of Great Britain.

This seemed an elegant solution. But this agreement was always an unprecedented and difficult compromise that tried to reconcile the aims of protecting the EU single market with the successful protection of the different strands of the Good Friday Agreement. Both the U.K. and EU knew more discussions were necessary. The text of the protocol makes clear that it is not a finished solution.

London was never happy that the protocol in effect carved a part of the United Kingdom off and placed it into a sphere where European customs law still reigned. It was unhappy with the European Court of Justice, an EU institution, remaining the court of last resort in any part of a country now legally independent of the European Union.

The current implementation of the protocol is causing considerable disruption and instability in Northern Ireland. Some of these issues imperil not only the smooth functioning of the Northern Ireland economy and that of the Republic of Ireland but also, possibly, the peace and stability U.S. policymakers wish to preserve.

In its current form, the protocol has stifled trade and created serious logistical problems, including disruption and instability in Northern Ireland at a time of shortages across Europe.

Businesses of all sizes have faced additional burdens. The U.K. government claims there are more than 300 entry documents in use for animal products traveling through Northern Ireland. It also references the Northern Ireland Executive’s estimates that, from January to March this year, about 20 percent of total customs checks carried out across the entire EU were conducted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The U.K. government has long argued that that is not sustainable.

Supply chains across the island are already under strain. They have been further disrupted by, and costs have risen because of, the new bureaucracy imposed by the protocol. At least 200 companies from Great Britain no longer operate in Northern Ireland because of the new difficulties at customs. Supplies of medicines have also been held up, and the continuity of supply remains uncertain. Supermarket managers in July said that without change there could be “significant disruption to supply and an increase in cost for Northern Ireland consumers” after October.

The United States may not have fully taken the existing problems on board. After his appearance at the Conservative Party Conference, Frost upped the ante, claiming in a major speech in Lisbon that the protocol was “the biggest source of mistrust” between Britain and the EU. He said the protocol “represents a moment of EU overreach, when the U.K.’s negotiating hand was tied,” and that the Protocol must be amended if any agreement were to survive.

From that alone, some in Washington detected what they consider to be British petulance and special pleading to insist on renegotiating something so recently enacted.

“The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed between the EU and the U.K. and our view is that the two sides should work together in a constructive way to find a deal and a way forward,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the BBC before Frost’s Lisbon speech.

“Without something like the Northern Ireland Protocol and with the possibility of the return of a hard border between [Northern Ireland] and the Republic of Ireland, we will have a serious risk to stability and to the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, and that is of significant concern to the [United States].”

Understandably, many in the United States paid attention to the latter part of that answer—the fears for the Good Friday Agreement and the security of the island—rather than its beginning. Sullivan advocated a deal, “something like the Protocol.” It is something Britain, with or without Frost, is willing to negotiate to achieve. Sources within the U.K. government pointed out that “something like the Protocol” was in fact the U.K. government’s own policy position.

Since Frost’s Lisbon speech, the EU has given its own opening arguments in a new negotiation, following the publication of the U.K. government’s position in July.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit point person, also announced an ambition for customs checks on manufactured goods entering Northern Ireland to be cut by half in a speech in Brussels in October, in which he outlined the EU’s intended “new model” for a reimagined Protocol. Paperwork at customs could also be significantly simplified, Sefcovic said.

Other significant concessions from the EU negotiators include guarantees on the continued movement into Northern Ireland of medicine and an 80 percent decrease in customs checks performed on animal products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Many of these concessions were considered difficult to secure once the deal had been signed, according to some external observers. Similar efforts to reach compromises of the same sort in 2019, under the leadership of then-U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, were rebuffed by the EU as impossible to renegotiate.

But Sefcovic also brushed aside some of Frost’s proposals. It was “very clear,” he said, that Northern Ireland could not have access to the single market without the supervision of the European Court of Justice.

“We think that renegotiating the Protocol would create uncertainty,” Sefcovic said. “And that’s the opposite of what we need.”

These are difficult subjects—and likely to prompt proposals and counterproposals before a solution is found. Such is the lot of negotiation.

Added to this is the debate, no less lively outside Europe, over whether Britain is living up to its international legal obligations, which the EU alleges Britain is breaking. Britain is considered poised to invoke Article 16 of the protocol, to invoke safeguard measures that suspend parts of the deal, in order to protect economic and social interests in Northern Ireland—although when he was in office, Frost insisted negotiation was still possible.

EU allies abroad contend that the changes are unprecedented and a threat to the sanctity of treaties. They paint the U.K. as an unreliable partner and a negotiator in bad faith.

For its part, the British government maintains that the protocol was a compromise by the U.K., intended to protect the peace process in trying circumstances. It says that the government is “unshakable” in its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, and that the commitment has “framed every aspect of the government’s approach to Brexit negotiations around Northern Ireland and will continue to do so.” The government maintains that it will not invoke Article 16 gratuitously, and only if the path taken by negotiations makes it inescapable. This is likely to be a policy which survives Lord Frost.

As has been true throughout the five years since the U.K. voted to leave the EU, mutual accusations will be traded over the coming weeks. Both the EU negotiators and the British have taken their cases to the media, and now, increasingly, onto Twitter—in a parallel negotiation for public and world opinion.

But the parties have negotiated deals before, and have largely reached agreement. The Brexit deal itself was considered lost many times. Red lines have been moved and reconstituted as necessity beckoned. And there is room for continuity as well as change. Large stretches of the Northern Ireland Protocol, objected to by no one, will remain—whatever the result of negotiation. And regardless of who is doing the negotiating.

Negotiations are entering what may be their final stretch. The challenge confronting negotiators remains significant. But peace in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is in the interests of all. If all act in good faith, peace and prosperity can be preserved. Johnson will simply have to find another minister to lead that effort.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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