For pundits, Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving. For the countries of Europe, a measure of how relationships are evolving.
The latest quinella is running on both flanks of the European Union, with the first leg on the green turf of Northern Ireland.
Some readers will recall the Northern Ireland protocol bit of the UK’s Brexit deal: a political fix which kept the British province in the EU’s customs and regulatory zone, whilst promising free trade with the rest of the UK. It wasn’t quite Monaco but, handled right, it could have meant a best-of-both-worlds bonanza for the nearly two million inhabitants.
But it’s not working. Team Boris say the EU is trying to assert an intolerable level of authority (keeping out British smallgoods for one thing). The EU retorts read the fine print, particularly the bit about disagreements to be sorted in our European Court of Justice. Read the next post to understand why the British don’t find this encouraging.
So, unless a new one can be agreed, the UK government is effectively threatening to override the protocol.
Some of the commentary writes this up as a legal dispute. It’s not. This is sovereign bodies thrashing out a political issue.
And the balance of forces looks different to that prevailing when the UK struck its withdrawal deal in 2019 pre-Covid.
The UK is politically more united, with strong support for its position from the majority in the divided province of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the signals from the EU suggest most member states are reluctant to push this dispute too far.
The economic impacts may also be understood differently. Leaving aside politically inept gestures like cutting off French electricity supplies, the EU’s main weapon is to threaten to increase taxes on European consumers wanting to buy British goods. The best British response would be to reduce taxes on British consumers wanting to buy non-European goods.
History suggests a deal will be struck – but it gives no guarantee that it will endure. Because the one certainty is that it’s hard to impose your authority on someone who does not see the benefit for them.