G7 – not so good in the margins

Some say it wouldn’t be a proper G7 summit without a row between the UK and France.  In this case, Boris Johnson taking the opportunity to ask France’s President Emmanuel Macron how he would feel if Toulousain could not sell their sausages in Paris.

The context for his remark is the negotiation between the UK and the EU over the application of the Brexit treaty to Northern Ireland.

Readers might recall our suggestion at the beginning of the year that the trade arrangements might prove a “charter for squabbling”. Perhaps that was too optimistic.

An impact on trade was not unexpected.  Arguments over fishing rights were a racing certainty.  The EU talking about using the treaty to restrict Covid exports to the UK was much more surprising.

The difference now is that the situation in Northern Ireland is moving beyond a negotiation with different perspectives, to one where events risk getting out of control.

Britain’s exit agreement included a hybrid arrangement for Northern Ireland.  The province would be part of the EU single market for goods (and thus subject to EU product rules) and part of the UK customs territory simultaneously.  The reasoning given was that this would permit an open border to be maintained with the Republic of Ireland per the Good Friday treaty which brought a formal end to the province’s civil war.

At the time, the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol looked like an ingenious way to give Northern Ireland the best of both worlds.  Provided indeed that this was the intention of both sides.  Recent negotiations suggest otherwise.

The British say the EU is insisting on a ‘legalistic’ interpretation, which would result in a ‘hard border’ hampering the free flow of goods between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.  The EU says this is needed to manage the risk of – potentially non-compliant – British goods seeping into its Single Market, and hints that it will get worse if the UK diverges from EU regulations.  Trade sanctions are a possibility if the British government fails the EU’s test of reasonableness.

But the people of Northern Ireland are also entitled to views.  And recent rioting is just one sign that the mainly-Protestant / Unionist bit of the population is perturbed by the possibility of such an outcome. 

Some might think that the common thread in each of these disputes is the EU’s unwillingness to compromise on its vision of itself as a dominant rule-making bloc.  If you don’t accept its terms, no deal.

Most of the time that approach works pretty well for the greater power.  But it can eventually push the smaller entity into making a decisive break and seeking its own direction.  The EU seems willing to go quite far in testing this proposition.

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