by Frank Schnittger
Sat Mar 6th, 2021 at 02:08:59 AM EST
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The UK government had already threatened to break international law with its Internal Markets Bill and was dissuaded from doing so only by the signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Now the UK government is trying the same trick with the Northern Ireland Protocol - announcing unilateral changes without going through the joint committee set up to oversee its operation. Apparently Lord Frost, ex UK Brexit negotiator and recently promoted to Boris Johnson's cabinet, has decided that the way to deal with the EU is to play hardball, and the EU will fold. That worked so well for him last time!
Paul Johnson, UK ambassador to Ireland, had a letter published in the Irish Times yesterday arguing that the UK approach was perfectly legal and indeed was required to deal with the "problems being experienced in the everyday life of communities" and to "ensure cross-community support."
The response of Irish Times letter writers has been to laugh him out of court, although I have tried to address the argument point by point in my letter published today:
NI Protocol and British diplomacy - Fifth letter down:
A chara, - At first glance, the UK ambassador Paul Johnson's justification for the UK breaking the Northern Ireland protocol seems reasonable. It is, allegedly, trying to provide practical solutions to problems being experienced "in the everyday life of communities" and ensure cross-community support.
But the bottom line is that it is a justification for the UK once again breaking the solemn legal undertakings it entered into when it signed the withdrawal and trade and cooperation agreements.
The fact that he invokes the EU's mistaken threat to invoke Article 16 merely adds insult to injury. The EU acknowledged its mistake and withdrew its threat within hours, whereas the UK is threatening to break the NI protocol deliberately and indefinitely, as it did with its Internal Market Bill last year prior to the signing of the trade and cooperation agreement.
The problems being experienced in the everyday life of communities are a direct result of the hard Brexit chosen by the Johnson administration with unionist support, to which no perfect solution is possible, and which are also being experienced by people south of the Border when trying to procure items from Britain.
Trying to push the blame for these inconveniences onto European Commission "inflexibility" is a classic distraction tactic. They are an integral part of the form of Brexit negotiated and agreed by the UK government on behalf of Northern Ireland.
And the protocol itself, in Article 18, requires that the continued operation of the protocol be subject to the approval on a regular basis by a simple majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Although desirable, there is no absolute requirement for "cross-community" support in the protocol, and to raise it as a justification now is simply the resuscitation of the unionist veto when none is provided for either in the protocol or the Belfast Agreement.
Indeed, unionist politicians are currently trying to incite loyalist opposition to the protocol to cover up their complicity in promoting a hard Brexit in defiance of the wishes of the 56 per cent majority in Northern Ireland who voted Remain.
Seeking to redirect loyalist anger from the unionist politicians who misled them and onto the EU is a classic demagogic tactic and one we should not be complicit in.
As noted by Stephen Collins, ("Johnson's unilateral breaking of NI protocol could go horribly wrong", Opinion & Analysis, March 5th), the European Parliament is due to ratify the trade and cooperation agreement and accompanying protocol at the end of this month. It should not do so while the UK government is, once again, threatening to unilaterally breach its solemn treaty obligations to the EU in defiance of international law.
And perhaps Paul Johnson should have a chat with his US ambassadorial counterpart. It is doubtful that the Biden administration will be too pleased to see the UK once again proposing to breach international law.- Is mise,
Denis Staunton, The Irish Times London correspondent has an interesting take on the UK government's approach:
Frost dispenses with the manual of diplomacy for NI protocol
In his first week in charge of Britain's relations with the European Union, David Frost has made clear that he will apply the same diplomatic method to his new role as he did to his old one of chief Brexit negotiator. Wednesday's unilateral extension of grace periods under the Northern Ireland protocol brought echoes of last year's threat to break international law with the Internal Market Bill.
Last year's gambit did nothing for Britain apart from creating a potential problem for its relationship with Washington as well as Brussels, obliging Boris Johnson to make as graceful a retreat as he could manage. This week's manoeuvre will make less impact, partly because the EU was already preparing to concede many of Britain's demands and nobody in Brussels has the appetite for a noisy, pointless conflict.
Like last time, the European Commission is taking a low-key approach, pursuing legal action but making clear privately that negotiations about implementing the protocol will continue regardless. The dispute over the protocol will not affect parallel negotiations on various aspects of the broader relationship and the European Parliament remains likely to ratify the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA).
Even on something as important to Britain as the current talks on granting "equivalence" to British financial services operators, the EU will not change course. It has always intended to offer access to its financial services market in accordance with its own interests and sentiment will not enter into that calculation.
Downing Street said on Thursday that it gave Brussels and Dublin a heads up but Wednesday's move came as a surprise to almost everyone at Westminster. It was announced in a written ministerial statement on budget day, when the news was unlikely to receive much attention.
The timing and the nature of the announcement suggested that although Frost was acting with the authority of Downing Street, the prime minister's heart might not have been in it.
Johnson promoted Frost to the cabinet and gave him responsibility for relations with the EU during a week of high emotion in Downing Street after the arrival of two senior aides who are friends of Johnson's fiancée Carrie Symonds. The remnant of the Vote Leave faction threatened to walk out and in an apparent panic, Johnson gave Frost a job to which he is unusually unsuited.
The article is worth reading in full. Whereas Gove was prepared to work through the Joint committee to minimise any disruption, Frost has determined that what the EU really needs is British leadership as embodied in his own style. The EU's preference for an orderly and legal approach is construed as weakness.
The EU Parliament has now decided to postpone the ratification of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in protest at the UK's actions, and the Commission is considering instituting infringement proceedings. If the Parliament does not ratify the deal by the end of April it lapses and we are back to a no deal scenario with tariffs and quotas kicking in. Boris Johnson and Lord Frost may find there is a very high price to paid for their failure to abide by its terms.
Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs has said the EU is negotiating with a partner it simply cannot trust. Sooner or later the EU must be bound to place all other EU/UK discussions on hold unless it is clearly in the interest of the EU to continue them. That means no more concessions to UK concerns until this matter is resolved.
In the meantime attempts by unionist leaders to foment unrest amongst loyalist paramilitaries in opposition to the Protocol seem to be meeting an unenthusiastic response. As I have also made clear in a letter published in the Belfast Telegraph, the dogs in the street know unionist leaders miscalculated badly in their support for the hardest form of Brexit, and now have only themselves to blame:
(The Belfast Telegraph does not publish Letters to the Editor on-line).
But the Irish government is taking no chances and is alerting its US allies to the issue.
US president Joe Biden is "unequivocal" in his support for the Belfast Agreement, the White House has said, following London's surprise move to extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
"It has been the bedrock of peace, stability and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland," presidential spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of the agreement when asked by The Irish Times in Washington about the dispute over the operation of the protocol.
Under the protocol, checks should commence in April on some goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland. However, in a unilateral move, the British government this week said it would extend the grace period until October, a decision that has escalated tensions between London, Brussels and Dublin.
London does not expect the arrangements for the inspections to be completed by October. Instead, senior sources said the checks would be partially rather than fully operating by then. The British government believes that the construction of the posts needed for the checks - suspended by the DUP minister Gordon Lyons last weekend - should continue.
The Government is to seek an urgent meeting with the Friends of Ireland Group in the US Congress about London's move. It was agreed at a meeting of the Cabinet's Brexit subcommittee on Thursday that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney would reach out to the influential bipartisan group on the issue.
Ministers at the committee meeting, which is chaired by the Taoiseach, are understood to have expressed concerns that unionists were exaggerating the impact of the protocol on Northern Ireland.
In Ireland we have a saying "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Basically it means that you can tolerate a partner cheating on you once provided they acknowledge their mistake and makes amends. But it is you who is the fool if you let them do it to you twice. The Commission needs to learn that this sort of ongoing guerilla warfare against the UK's legal obligations cannot be tolerated and that it cannot simply be business as usual.
If the Commission is to restore its credibility and standing within Europe it has to grow a backbone and declare that all other possible concessions to the UK as part of ongoing discussions are off the table until legal order is restored. As Lord Frost told his team, the EU can negotiate in one of only two styles, that of a moody teenager, or that of a tank:
Throughout the Brexit negotiations, Frost handled his principal as poorly as his interlocutors, seldom encouraging Johnson towards more creative solutions or towards candour about the trade-offs involved. Some of his errors were of the most basic kind, so that he never understood that deadlines and time pressure were to Britain's disadvantage rather than Europe's.
But when the deal was agreed, sources close to the British negotiating team hailed it as a triumph, offering much of the credit to Frost's diplomatic method.
"In pep talks, Lord Frost told his team that the EU's negotiating style was most often comparable to a moody teenager or an attempt to crush the opposition like a tank," the Times reported.
"Unflatteringly and to draw a line under the past, he compared Sir Olly Robbins, his predecessor under Theresa May, as a mouse. `He gave us a four box grid of different modes of negotiator: teenager, tank, mouse, and leader. He told us the EU tends towards the first two and the UK has too often been a mouse. We needed to be the leader in the room and rise above things,' a senior member of his team said."
It is time the EU started to negotiate more like a tank. It is the UK which is acting like a moody teenager and appeals to reason will not get us very far. The UK has tried this trick before: threatening to break international law in order to get its way. The last time the EU responded very calmly and pragmatically and concluded the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. But what use is any agreement if it is broken within weeks of being signed? A more robust response is required this time around if this is not to become an ongoing pattern.