British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a massive majority in 2019 by promising to “get Brexit done.” But the practicalities of leaving the European Union have proven tricky, especially in Northern Ireland where Brexit has caused havoc for businesses and riots in the streets of Belfast.
After months of simmering tension, the British government on Wednesday demanded sweeping changes to a key part of the Brexit withdrawal arrangements – the Northern Ireland Protocol – and it’s threatening to walk away from the agreement if a new deal isn’t reached.
“We cannot go on as we are,” Brexit minister David Frost told Parliament on Wednesday.
But in a sign of a looming battle, EU officials have rejected wholesale changes and argued that the problems are a consequence of Britain’s decision to leave.
The protocol was designed “to address the unique challenges that Brexit, and the type of Brexit chosen by the British government, poses for the island of Ireland,” Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s point person on Brexit, said Wednesday. He added that while the bloc was prepared to “seek creative solutions” to the difficulties, the EU “will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol.”
Frustration over the Northern Ireland arrangement has been building ever since it came into effect in January. The protocol is designed to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the island by ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU-member state.
Under its terms, Northern Ireland has remained largely within the EU’s single market, which guarantees the free movement of goods, and the province adheres to most EU regulations.
However, that has hampered trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. Shipments have been held up for hours at ports in Belfast and Larne because of new customs checks and many companies have complained about thousands of pages of documentation that are now required to bring goods in from Britain.
At least 200 British businesses have stopped supplying Northern Ireland altogether because of the hassle, causing gaps in some grocery store shelves. In a letter to the British government on Wednesday, Archie Norman, the chairman of grocer Marks & Spencer, called the protocol’s requirements byzantine and said they were destroying businesses. He added that there was “no other outcome for consumers in Northern Ireland in the end other than higher prices.”
The situation is set to get even worse in the coming weeks when all chilled meat products from Britain – including sausages, chicken nuggets, hamburger, pies and other non-frozen meats – will be barred from entering Northern Ireland. The EU doesn’t allow imports of chilled meats into its single market, which means British meat products won’t be permitted in Northern Ireland. The ban has yet to take effect because Britain and the EU negotiated a grace period to give businesses time to adjust. But the time out ends on Sept. 30.
The protocol has also caused tension within loyalist communities – made up mainly of paramilitary groups and ardent U.K. patriots – who feel betrayed by the British government for cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the United Kingdom. They also fear it could lead to reunification with Ireland.
There have been constant protests against the protocol in Belfast and other cities this year, and some demonstrations turned violent last April, resulting in nearly 100 injured police officers and dozens of arrests.
“Loyalists feel threatened at the moment,” Billy Hutchinson, a Belfast city councillor who belongs to the Progressive Unionist Party, recently told a parliamentary committee. “People who got involved in those riots were frustrated. They were angry. That is what they did. They showed their anger.”
On Wednesday, Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, called for an overhaul of the protocol and outlined a series of demands. “These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland Protocol. We do not shy away from that,” he told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Britain wants fewer restrictions on the movement of goods that are destined only for Northern Ireland and custom checks limited to products that are headed to Ireland. The government also wants a new dispute-settlement process and a stand-still agreement that would suspend the protocol until the negotiations conclude.
Mr. Lewis added that for now Britain would not invoke Article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side to take unilateral action if the agreement is causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.” However, a document outlining Britain’s position made it clear that “such action remains on the table as a possibility for the future if circumstances justify it.”
Neale Richmond, an Irish member of Parliament who speaks for Ireland’s government on Brexit, said Mr. Johnson has to take responsibility for the problems stemming from the protocol.
“A deal is a deal. Boris Johnson influenced it, negotiated it, signed it and now needs to own it,” Mr. Richmond said Wednesday. “It has always been clear Brexit would be profoundly disruptive for Northern Ireland, particularly given that a clear majority of people [in Northern Ireland] voted to stay in the EU. … The protocol is not the problem, Brexit is.”
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