Brexit antagonism intensifies as the EU and UK take another turn


Graffiti on a building says "No boundary of the Irish Sea" in the Sandy Row area of ​​Belfast.

Photographer: Paul Faith / Bloomberg

When the UK and the European Union signed a trade deal late last year, few expected the new relationship to be straightforward. And as with many divorces, the antagonism between the parties has refused to fade.

Among the most sensitive issues is Northern Ireland, and tensions rose sharply this week when the The UK announced that it will ignore some crucial obligations under the Brexit deal and the EU responded with a dramatic threat of legal action.

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson already under pressure from members of his own party to break the Northern Ireland deal, the risk is a further escalation that erodes relations. That could have repercussions far beyond politics, and the ongoing saga is a frustration for business. The huge UK finance industry, for example, is seeing the potential for beneficial trade deals. little by little it was reduced by endless political disputes.

For its part, the EU had already turned up the heat when it controversially suggested in January, albeit briefly, that it could use an emergency clause in the Northern Ireland deal as part of vaccine export controls.

Read more: How a ‘mind-blowing’ mistake created a dangerous Brexit showdown

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told the Financial Times on Thursday that the EU would initiate legal action “very soon”. This It would be just the first step in a long dispute process set out in the Brexit deal that could last for months but could ultimately impose trade tariffs or other sanctions on the UK.

The tensions over the fragile compromise over Northern Ireland are particularly dangerous and threaten stability in a region that has suffered decades of bloodshed. The Irish News reported that some groups loyal to paramilitaries in the region are withdrawing their support for the Good Friday peace agreement, which largely ended the violence.

The agreement signed by Johnson avoids border controls on the island of Ireland and keeps Northern Ireland within the EU customs union and much of its single market. That means that the border and accompanying controls are effectively in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

To facilitate adjustment for businesses, not all trade controls on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK were introduced at the end of the post-Brexit transition period. But now the UK has extended the waiver until October, beyond the March 31 date agreed with the bloc.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney called the move “deeply useless.” Johnson said Thursday that these were “temporary technical measures” to help trade.

“I’m sure that with a little good will and common sense, all these problems are eminently soluble,” he said.

On Wednesday, Johnson had told Parliament that the government would act as necessary to guarantee Northern Ireland’s position within the UK domestic market, and “we left nothing off the table.”

Northern Ireland is just one example of the tension inherent in the deals that established the post-Brexit relationship. Given the necessary almost four years of complicated, moody and sometimes chaotic negotiations, there is a sense of foreboding behind the scenes in London and Brussels.

Within Johnson’s Conservative Party, some members want him to invoke the agreement Article 16, which gives both parties unilateral power to take action if its application creates “serious economic, social or environmental difficulties that may persist or divert trade.” It is considered by the architects of the agreement on both sides as the nuclear option that was never expected to be used.

Many in Brussels believe it is in the Johnson government’s best interest to constantly poke holes in the deal, in what is apparently a post-Brexit rally of the way the UK blamed the EU before the split. But the EU’s mistake in January, which Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she regretted, has given the UK a reason to push the issue forward.

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