The United Kingdom and the European Union (EU) reached an agreement for Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade protocol after three years of failed diplomatic negotiations that left both parties on the verge of a trade war. The agreement was announced shortly after 1500 British time by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. “We have changed the original protocol. The deal we reached today gives us free trade in the UK, protects Northern Ireland’s place and the sovereignty of its people,” Sunak said.
At 1830 London time (1530 Argentine time) Sunak appeared before Parliament to report on the agreement. Meanwhile, to add all the pomp and ceremony of great events, Ursula von der Leyen met with King Carlos III. Reading the political, economic and diplomatic fine print will take much longer than this media minuet.
What does the agreement contain?
For the Europeans, the agreement is to remove an annoying stone in the shoe from their diplomatic agenda. For Sunak it is the first success he can show since he took office as prime minister at the end of October. In the joint press conference and in the leaks to the press, some fundamental points begin to emerge:
- The controls on non-European products that enter Northern Ireland and from there go to the Republic of Ireland will be relaxed, effectively entering the EU’s economic-commercial area.
- There would be two lifts: a green one (free access for most products) and a red one (with a special border check regime for some highly regulated products in EU legislation).
- The European Court of Justice would retain an arbitrator role.
- The United Kingdom would be readmitted to the Horizon program for scientific research, something that had many British investigations blocked.
The announcement was greeted by many quarters, including some pro-Brexit. A former Conservative opponent of a deal, the current Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, called it a “fantastic result”. Markets also gave their thumbs up with the troubled pound sterling up 0.7% on the news.
But the road is still full of thorns. Loyalist Protestants in Northern Ireland said they would take as much time as necessary to study the deal and see if they approve it. According to the BBC’s provincial correspondent Jayne McCormack, the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, “doesn’t want to be pushed for approval, because they want to know, after a fine, line-by-line analysis, if the deal closes.” or not”
In a similar position are the ultra-Brexit conservatives of the European Research Group. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson anticipated in recent days that he would not support an agreement that contained concessions. According to a poll this weekend when the announcement began to be considered “imminent”, the majority of the members of the Conservative Party (who have a caveman position a la Patricia Bullrich in security, unemployment, social plans, etc.) do not want an agreement. None of them will find the role of arbitrator of the European Court of Justice palatable.
It is possible that none of these groups are strong enough to prevent parliamentary approval of the reform of the protocol. The opposition, led by Labour, criticized the fact that it had taken so long to resolve this issue, but it is ruled out that it will vote in favor. However, a rejection by broad sectors could prove explosive in Northern Ireland and generate further divisions in the ultra-fragmented Conservative Party.
The nightmare of history
The disruptive power of Ireland is not new. It is not for nothing that the most famous Irish novelist, James Joyce, wrote in the Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, (history is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake up).
From a bird’s eye view this story could be summed up like this. In 1603 England conquered Ireland causing centuries of resistance, wars, famine, virtual genocide in the 17th century until independence in 1921. The island was divided into two: the current Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is still united with Great Britain. . In the 1960s, discrimination against Catholics and independentistas in the north gave rise to “the conflict”, a 30-year war between Protestant unionists and Catholic independentistas that ended with the 1998 peace agreements.
The membership of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to the European Union (EU) facilitated the arrival of this agreement. In practice, Irish unity was achieved because there was free trade and the same rules of the European common market for both parties: economically and legally they were part of the same unit.
The separation of the United Kingdom from the EU after the 2016 referendum turned everything upside down. It took three years for the two parties to agree on post-Brexit rules. By far the hardest nut to crack in a highly complex negotiation was Ireland and trade on the only land border between an EU country (the Republic of Ireland) and a UK territory (the province of Northern Ireland).
The alternative was to erect a new land border, replanting the seeds of conflict, or to come to an alternative arrangement to control goods entering the province of Great Britain so that they did not violate EU rules. Prime Minister Theresa May lost three votes in the House of Commons on the matter and ended up resigning.
His replacement, Boris Johnson, signed the post-Brexit deal in November 2019, which included the Northern Ireland Protocol. According to the protocol, Northern Ireland was subject to the rules that govern the EU market: customs controls would be carried out in two ports in Northern Ireland.
The fire and its eves
The conflict began when, shortly after the agreement was ratified, Boris Johnson said that it was very strict, he had to relax and if not, the United Kingdom was willing to not respect it, that is, to violate an international agreement.
According to Johnson – and the ultra pro-Brexit and the unionists – Protestants of Northern Ireland – the agreement turned Northern Ireland into a territory that no longer belonged entirely to the United Kingdom because it was governed by the rules of the EU.
At the rate of this tension, the 1998 peace agreement trembled when the unionists decided not to respect one of its fundamental points – shared government between the party with the most votes and the one that followed it – hiding behind their questions of the protocol. The reality was that, for the first time in history, the Catholics of Sinn Fein had won the elections and the right to occupy the post of First Minister (First Minister) in the autonomous government. The specter of a union with the Republic of Ireland frightened the unionists.
In a statement last week before a parliamentary committee, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major warned there was no perfect solution to a protocol he called “one of the worst deals in modern history.” Major pointed out that both unionists and independentist Catholics “will have to accept things with which they do not agree.”
For now Rishi Sunak will enjoy a moment of glory in nearly five months of strikes, inflation, economic downturn and discontent. As it is, and given Irish stormy history, no one knows how long the smile will last. The political dynamics will be the litmus test to see if this agreement is a mere patch to get by or a lasting arrangement that keeps the peace in Northern Ireland.