Brexit may be “done”, in Boris Johnson’s phrase, but arguments over trade rules for Northern Ireland are going so badly that his deal with the EU may ultimately be undone.
On Friday (5 November), Twitter was buzzing with speculation that the UK was on the point of triggering Article 16, the nuclear option to suspend the Brexit agreement.
That’s because Johnson and his Brexit minister Lord Frost don’t believe the EU is moving far enough to take account of British concerns over the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the deal covering trade with the bloc. The UK warned that progress in the talks has been “limited”.
The biggest hurdle seems to be the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in enforcing rules in Northern Ireland. British officials want the ECJ removed from the process, but the EU says the court is central to protecting the integrity of the bloc’s single market, which Northern Ireland effectively remains part of.
There are other unresolved disagreements over checks on goods moving from the British mainland into Northern Ireland. The EU says it will work to reduce the burden of checks in light of the practical difficulties they have caused, but the UK government believes the bloc’s proposals won’t work well enough.
Frost and his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic met for talks on the dispute in Brussels on Friday. In a statement afterwards, a UK government spokesman said Frost still thinks there is hope for a resolution and the two will meet for more intensive discussions in London next week.
Downing Street made clear that it is too soon to withdraw. “We are not going to trigger Article 16 today,” a No 10 spokesman said on Friday. The option remains, however, if no resolution can be found.
Johnson’s team won’t give a timetable for reaching a deal, though reporting suggests a decision could come after the Cop26 climate talks conclude at the end of next week. “Our focus at the moment is working hard on negotiations,” the spokesman said. “We need to resolve this urgently because the disruption on the ground in Northern Ireland hasn’t gone away.”
If the UK were to trigger Article 16, suspending the Brexit trade deal, the consequences are hard to predict. The hard-line option for the EU would be to give notice that it will terminate the deal entirely. Then we would be in a no-deal Brexit situation. There are less severe options, including arbitration, and imposing targeted tariffs.
The alarming possibility is that this could then herald months or more of renegotiation, potentially in the context of higher tariffs and trade disruption. If that happens, the politics of the UK’s relationship with the 27 remaining members of its former trade club, which is already bad, would likely get worse. Business would suffer, supply chains would creak, consumers would feel the pain, and Johnson’s government would have to decide whether to fight on or make another of its increasingly common U-turns in a desperate attempt to get out of trouble.