Boris Johnson only has himself to blame for the problems caused by the Northern Ireland protocol

The problem is not the protocol but the UK government’s failure to offer a workable alternative.


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The British government will again seek to reopen the Northern Ireland border protocol as the end of transitional arrangement in September and, with it, a further thickening of the sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, comes closer into view.  

The United Kingdom is considering three options, in ascending order of severity: threaten to activate Article 16, which allows the UK (or the EU) to suspend the arrangement; actually trigger Article 16; or rip up the protocol entirely.  

But the policy problem for the British government is that the current difficulties being experienced aren’t a sign of the protocol malfunctioning, but of it working as planned. To maintain the open border on the island of Ireland, you have two options: a) continued regulatory alignment on goods and phytosanitary standards between the UK and the EU, which the Conservative Party has consistently rejected, or b) a thicker regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It’s hard to reach an alternative arrangement when you have already ruled out all the available options: that one of the mooted solutions, per the FT, is an “honesty box”-type arrangement is a sign of that.  

The British government’s other problem is that the EU27 don’t want to reopen the protocol and neither does the Biden administration. But Boris Johnson needs both the EU and the US on side if the UK is to host a successful climate conference in November and to advance its foreign policy goals more broadly.

[see also: The Irish border question is unanswerable. The only viable option is to stop asking it]

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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