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How will the row between the UK and EU over the Irish border be resolved?

The British government dislikes the Northern Ireland protocol but it has no plausible alternative solution. 

By Stephen Bush

What’s the resolution in the ongoing stand-off between the European Union and the United Kingdom over the operation of the Irish border protocol? 

Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner in charge of overseeing the EU-UK trade deal, has said that the EU will launch legal action against the UK following the latter’s unilateral extension of the grace period that has allowed supermarkets and some of their suppliers to avoid some of the bureaucratic hurdles around the trade of food and other goods. The British government’s argument is that the action was necessary to prevent food shortages: the European Commission’s argument is that the British action has breached trust, while the Irish government’s position is that the UK needs goodwill, not further unilateral action, to make the protocol work.

The problem is that, ultimately, the protocol working means a harder and thicker border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, particularly if the British government does succeed in introducing significant and further divergence between the rest of the UK and the member states of the EU. That is unacceptable for Unionists, and not without good reason. Yes, it’s fair to say that the DUP are at least the co-author of the problem, in that they rejected any of the high-alignment Brexits that would have avoided it. But for the average Unionist in the street it remains the case that the deal Boris Johnson struck does create new and potentially ever-growing barriers between them and the rest of their country. 

Yet there is no ready alternative: the only off-the-shelf solution is greater alignment across a variety of sectors, most importantly phytosanitary and agri-food, which the Conservative government is loath to pursue.

That reality – that the British government dislikes the protocol but has no plausible available solution – means continuing pressure on power-sharing in Northern Ireland, and continuing and ever-growing tensions between the UK and the EU.

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