Talk about a heavy Friday night: over a mad six-hour period, the European Commission invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland border protocol as part of a package of measures designed to prevent the movement of vaccine supplies from within the European Union to the UK, before abruptly U-turning and undoing the invocation in the face of condemnation from the British and Irish governments, essentially every political party in both countries, and the Archbishop of Canterbury to boot.
My understanding of what happened is that provisions to seal up the border on the island of Ireland were bundled in by officials and voted on rapidly by the European Commission – only for the commission to have to retreat very quickly once the implications of what that entailed became clear.
[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]
As Boris Johnson himself said when rejecting calls by the DUP to trigger the protocol in order to tackle the shortage of Percy Pigs in Northern Ireland’s branches of M&S, Article 16 is there to tackle credible and serious emergencies. Whatever one thinks the balance of blame between the European Commission, AstraZeneca and the British government is, that AstraZeneca might start smuggling vaccine supplies across the Irish border is not a credible or serious suggestion.
The difficult truth that many Eurosceptics refused to reckon with during the Brexit talks is that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is not like any of the EU’s other land borders. Repeated demands for us to have the same arrangements as those enjoyed by Norway and Switzerland, both of which have border infrastructure, showed that many British Eurosceptics simply did not understand the problem.
What the events of last Friday night show is that lack of understanding has a mirror on the EU side: that away from the Brexit-focused team of negotiators, inside the European Commission’s bureaucracy, there is as little understanding that the EU-UK border is just different from the EU-UK sea border between Dover and Calais. Measures that may be proportionate and necessary on the Dover-Calais route should not be bungled on to the Belfast-Dublin border.
The inability to understand the importance of the Irish border was a major problem during the Brexit talks. That outside the island of Ireland, that lack of understanding hasn’t gone away in Great Britain and has a mirror on the EU side means that the working of the protocol may be more chaotic and unwieldy than feared.