Unilaterally modifying the agreements made with the European Union “is not a big problem”: so the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson minimized the impact of the British decision to eliminate parts of the international treaty signed in 2019. The Conservative government presented a series of amendments to the Irish Protocol in Parliament on 13 June that it intends to implement without the consent of the EU. “Minor adjustments,” according to Johnson, needed after months of fruitless negotiations to change the deal.
For the EU, on the other hand, Johnson has chosen open confrontation. Brussels therefore intends to react immediately: the Commission has decided to reopen the infringement procedure opened in March 2021 and suspended in September 2021. The London decision “damages mutual trust and creates instability”, according to the vice-president of the EU Commission, Maros Sefcovic. “The unilateral violation of an international agreement is quite serious,” said Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin. “We are modifying, not abolishing the Protocol” and therefore “there are no violations of international law”, insisted Foreign Minister Liz Truss.
Changes in the pipeline
However, the changes concern substantial parts of the agreement. London does not accept the supervision of the European Court of Justice as the supreme arbiter, which for the EU is one condition not. It also intends to reduce border controls for goods arriving from Great Britain, introducing a green corridor for products destined for the Northern Irish market and a red one for those to be exported to the Republic of Ireland and therefore to the EU.
The risk, very serious for the EU, is to jeopardize the integrity of the single market. The Protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the single market and in the EU customs union to avoid a return to an internal border in Ireland that could rekindle political and religious tensions. The agreement was strongly opposed by the Dup, the Protestant unionist party, because it creates a division between Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU orbit, and the other three nations of the United Kingdom, Scotland, England and Wales, which remain entirely sovereigns.
The Dup Protest
In protest, the Dup refused to form a government. The party, which lost ground in the recent elections, is effectively blackmailing London, threatening to continue to paralyze politics in Northern Ireland until the Protocol is abolished. With the announcement of June 13, Johnson failed to please the Dup. Indeed, the party has said it wants deeds, not words, and will wait to see the final version of the law before breaking the deadlock in Belfast.