Conflict Alerts # 517, 25 May 2022
In the news
On 24 May, a nine-member US Congressional delegation visiting London told the UK government a unilateral action on the Northern Ireland (NI) protocol "will not work." Democratic congressman Dan Kildee urged the UK foreign secretary Liz Truss to have face-to-face negotiations with Brussels.
On 23 May the delegation met the Irish premier Micheál Martin in Dublin and is due to visit Northern Ireland. Premier Martin reiterated: there was "a deep well of support" for a "joint, pragmatic solution" to concerns over the protocol. Joining him, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte also said: the EU had "shown maximum flexibility" in negotiations.
A nine-member team led by Congressman Richard Neal is visiting to discuss the post-Brexit trading arrangements between the US and the UK. As one of President Biden's closest allies Congressman is also seeking to calm tensions between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol that has revived ever since Secretary Truss has called for fresh legislative measures. On 22 May, speaking in Kerry Congressman Neal said the US would be "unwavering" in its support of the Good Friday Agreement.
Issues at large
First, BREXIT pangs to the Northern Ireland protocol. Avoiding a hard border with Ireland, the Northern Ireland protocol signed by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the EU as part of the BREXIT withdrawal agreement in 2020 had till now kept NI aligned with the EU single market. However, the post-BREXIT realities were: new systems of checks on the Irish Sea border, custom charges on goods inflow from Great Britain to NI, and increased cost of living owing to the NI protocol. The realities further worsen as the protocol now threatens to derail the power-sharing government in NI. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to appoint new ministers until the checks on the Irish Sea border on goods are scrapped. DUP had held that such checks undermine Northern Ireland's place in the UK as they increase costs for consumers, complicate business, and create special divisions of power.
Second, the UK's attempts to revise NI protocol. Faced with a political block in NI and tough negotiations with the EU, Secretary Liz Truss has said a new law would be introduced to change the post-Brexit trade deal for Northern Ireland should negotiations with the EU fail. On 17 May, the UK said, it will have to take unilateral action to override part of the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol unless the EU shows the "requisite flexibility." In the past, the Johnson government has attempted to revise the NI protocol with the Internal Market bill. But it only toughened its negotiations with the EU.
Third, conflict of interest with the EU. In response to Secretary Truss, the EU said it would "need to respond with all measures at its disposal" if the UK went ahead with the legislation. Talks on customs and checks have been ongoing between the UK and the EU since March 2021 with Former foreign secretary David Frost. After Frost quit in December threatening to invoke Article 16, the negotiations are now handled by Liz Truss. But the narrative remained the same. The EU ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida said: "using legislation to override an international treaty. I feel myself back in the fall of 2020, with the internal markets bill." "We can't renegotiate the protocol: the ink on the signatures is hardly dry."
Fourth, the US backdoor diplomacy. As DUP continues to block a new power-sharing executive at Stormont, it has put the spirit of Belfast or the Good Friday Agreement in line where a devolved power-sharing arrangement has sustained peace among factions within NI. This has presented the US with a scope to take on the burden of keeping a peace agreement together as its visiting delegation takes a staunch position on the Belfast agreement. The delegation is now engaged in a diplomatic negotiation to iron out a trade deal, reiterating the need for the agreement has put its stakes on the UK government.
First, a fading possibility of the EU and UK walking away with a trade deal. The EU Brexit chief Maroš Šefčovič issued a blunt statement that the protocol is the "cornerstone" for a wider withdrawal agreement. If the UK disapplies the protocol, the EU could impose limited sanctions on emblematic British goods such as Scottish salmon and whisky or suspension off the entire trade deal.
Second, a US-EU alliance on trade deals and negotiation rules. A US statement on the Good Friday Agreement along with attempts to draw up a trade deal possibly shows early signs of a UK's isolation. As both the US and EU statements align, it seemingly sets the terms ruling out renegotiation of the NI protocol and further complicates the bargaining position on the trade deals.