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The EU’s concessions on the Northern Ireland protocol come at a cost

How much energy and goodwill is the UK willing to spend arguing about the European Court of Justice while other foreign policy objectives fall by the wayside?

By Stephen Bush

The European Commission has unveiled a package of reforms to the Northern Ireland protocol – as expected, they would drastically reduce the number of checks required between Northern Ireland and the UK, but, also as expected, they retain the European Court of Justice’s role as the ultimate arbiter. 

The Commission has gone considerably further than many expected, and it has required considerable cajoling of member states to do so. Many in the British government believe that validates their belligerent approach: they think it shows that the only way to get results in negotiations with the EU is to be tough, not conciliatory. From their perspective, the approach is working.

The reality is that just as most Brexiteers hadn’t really thought all that much about Northern Ireland during the Brexit campaign, the Commission and most member states hadn’t fully grasped its complexities and sensitivities either. That for a prolonged period during the Brexit talks, the Commission and many in the EU27 wanted EU inspectors to have a permanent physical presence is a good example of that lack of consideration.

The bigger question for the British government though is: how do you define “working”? The UK has a climate summit in November in which the government has put a huge amount of political and financial capital into. We have joint operations against jihadism with the French government. We want the rest of Europe to take a stronger line on Russia and, depending on who in government you speak to, on China too. 

Belligerence on the protocol is a policy with a cost: that cost is progress across the rest of the UK’s foreign policy objectives. You can see how an accord could be reached that allows, via some intermediary body, Britain to claim that the European Court of Justice is out of the picture while in reality it is anything but. The question is, is that really worth the energy that could be spent on climate change, on joint operations in the Western Sahel, or on any other UK-EU foreign policy priority you care to name?

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[See also: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?]

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