Boris Johnson has a lot to do right now. The “Partygate” scandal beat the personal notes of the British Prime Minister, a cost of living crisis is affecting millions of its citizens, and he assumes a leading role to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion.
To the outside observer, therefore, it may seem odd that Johnson now also seems to be choosing a Brexit-related struggle with his old enemythe European Union.
Yet the UK government has spent much of this week discussing the possibility of overriding a key part of the Brexit deal that Johnson himself brokered and signed with the bloc in 2019.
The issue in question is the Northern Ireland Protocol, a safeguard that has been put in place to ensure that the border between the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK Kingdom) remains open – thereby mitigating the risk of sectarian violence returning to the island of Ireland.
The UK government argues the protocol is not working for a variety of reasons, most recently because Unionists in Northern Ireland are unwilling to form a power-sharing government with the Republican party Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein won parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland for the first time in history last week. The main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), however, says that until the protocol is fixed to their satisfaction, they will continue to hold their ground.
Yet officials in Brussels believe this is just the latest excuse used by London to ignore the protocol, after previously claiming it was damaging the UK’s internal market. To date, the UK government has yet to fully implement the protocol, much to the disdain of the EU.
Exactly what the UK government plans to do in the immediate future remains unclear. There are instruments in the protocol, including something called Article 16, which can unilaterally suspend parts of the treaty and trigger consultation between the EU and the UK, if one side thinks it is not working properly.
Worse still, in the eyes of Brussels at least, the UK has hinted that it may enshrine policies in domestic law that override the protocol.
Regardless of the arguments over who is right and who is wrong, there are serious questions to be asked about whether it is reasonable for the UK to start a fight with the EU at this time.
EU officials have made it clear to CNN that if the UK really throws the baby out with the bathwater, it stands ready to retaliate in a variety of ways. British media have raised the prospect of a “trade war”, which the EU denies the intention. However, as one EU diplomat put it, “if the UK fails to comply with the protocol in a way that we believe is harmful to both our single market and Northern Ireland, then all bets are off. open”.
Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at Trinity College, Cambridge, explained that if the UK “legally triggers Article 16 due to a trade disruption, then the EU can use rebalancing measures”. However, the biggest fear in Brussels is that the UK will draft national legislation that simply upends the protocol.
“In this case, the EU could start enforcement proceedings or even go so far as to terminate parts of the trade agreement that the UK and the EU reached in 2019. And that means tariffs “, she added.
Given the UK’s reliance on imports from and exports to the EU, this would obviously have a negative impact on the UK economy. And that is what baffles people in Brussels and London: why would Johnson want to do this when the UK is already entering a cost of living crisis?
“Brexit was a deliberate political decision to create trade barriers between the UK and the EU. And to some extent we have already seen the cost of goods, including food, rise for British citizens,” said Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London. “Obviously new trade barriers would make this worse, going against the Brexiteer’s claim that leaving the EU would bring cheaper goods into the UK via new trade deals.”
In theory, signing new trade deals could do just that. However, trade deals are notoriously difficult to negotiate and require significant infrastructure changes to reap the benefits. And time is not something Brits currently struggling to put food on the table don’t have a lot of time for right now.
So why is the UK government doing this? Members of Johnson’s Conservative party have a range of opinions on why picking this fight now isn’t a bad idea.
Many believe the protocol was truly an unfair deal that undermines the integrity of the UK. They believe the risk of UK goods entering the EU’s single market failing to meet its standards – the main reason the bloc is creating a customs border – is low enough in the context of everything going on in the world for the EU to end up sucking it up.
And as one senior conservative told CNN: “It has the added bonus of making Johnson feel like he’s standing up to the EU. If he is seen as winning this fight, it will certainly appeal to his support base.
But this calculation also carries a certain risk. Another Tory adviser said the Prime Minister was ‘playing with fire by reopening the Brexit issue, given he told the public in 2019 it was done and dusted off’.
Diplomats and officials in Brussels are not so sure that if Johnson pulled the trigger so dramatically, the EU would want to play nice. A senior official told CNN that “given that we have recently had to take a hard line with some of our own member states, such as Hungary over the rule of law, I don’t see how being lenient towards the United Kingdom will wash itself”.
Johnson’s approval ratings have plummeted in recent months and his handling of the UK’s cost of living crisis is potentially one of the few things that could win him back his support. So in this context, doing something that could exacerbate the crisis has the potential to backfire.
“Voters tend to punish the government when economic times are bad. If the government does not address the cost of living crisis quickly, it risks incurring the ire of the electorate in its next election,” said Will Jennings, professor of politics at the University of Southampton.
And Brexit is still a hot issue in the UK, one that voters often use as a stronger indicator of their political allegiances than party politics.
“The Conservatives took advantage of this in 2019 because they were able to portray Labor as frustrating the will of the people,” Jennings added. “They are no longer in the same position. Voters want to reap the Brexit dividend – and technocratic wrangling over international treaties isn’t as easy to sell to them.
All of this baffles officials and diplomats in Brussels.
“Does Boris really want supermarket shelves to be emptier than they are now? It was clear in the recent local elections [that] the reason people didn’t vote conservative was the cost of living [concerns]said a senior European diplomat. “So why would you make this worse and worse if you’re the Conservative Party?”
Still, Johnson has made a career out of taking risks. Many of them have paid off, including the biggest gamble of his political life backing Brexit, a move that would ultimately put him at 10 Downing Street.
But he is also a Prime Minister who has governed through unprecedented crisis after unprecedented crisis. And it’s entirely possible that the schemes that worked when he was out of the tent, seeking power, won’t work when he’s the man at the helm of a country on his knees.
It may be that his instinct to kick Brussels out of a hole and bolster his support. Or it could be seen simply as the latest act of political desperation by a man trying to divert the attention of a government light on politics and trying to regain control the only way he knows how: by bashing his enemies.