The Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit 2 – the cart without a horse

The offer by the EU to significantly reduce checks on goods, especially food, on the Irish Sea border, and the promise to legislate for British authorisation of medicines supplied into NI and therefore the Single Market, takes away the salience of complaints of barriers to the supply of goods from Britain into Northern Ireland.  The solution of the medicines issue was promised long ago and the EU was never going to allow itself to be held up to criticism for preventing the supply of medicines, including cancer treatments, to NI.  The non-issue of British sausages that was already hardly alive was killed once again by the EU breaking with its policy on chilled meats entering the Single Market. 

This does not mean that these issues are solved.  One reason that the existing border checks did not work was because the British and Unionist minister at Stormont made sure that they didn’t.  The scope, or motivation, for a repeat approach by the British in the enforcement of the compensating mechanisms proposed by the EU for the abandonment of checks at the sea border remain to be seen.

Instead, the question of the role of the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) has been held aloft by the British as the key requirement in negotiation of a new Protocol.  Of course, the unionists don’t want any Protocol but that could only be the outcome if the UK and EU entered a trade war that none would benefit from, especially the British.  The unionists aren’t worth that price for the British so they will just have to sell as a victory whatever Johnson and Frost agree to in the end.

However, if both the British and unionists wanted to declare victory now is the time to do it.  The EU declared it would not negotiate and it has; its restrictions on food imports and requirement for authorisation within the EU for medicines circulating within it are important elements of its Single Market but have been given up in this case (the former to an extent).  It can bypass them only because it believes it can contain these concessions within the Protocol, that is within its arrangements for the North of Ireland.  It obviously takes the view that there will be no leakage into any other trading relationship and no precedent set that could be exploited by other trading partners.

Both the British and unionists could therefore claim that not only has it forced the EU to negotiate the Protocol, which it still denies, but that they have compelled the EU to surrender much of what it said it could not do.  It has political coverage for this not only for the reasons just set out but also because for its Irish member state and for Northern nationalists what matters is that there is no Single Market land border down the middle of the country.  As long as the checks along the Irish sea are held to be working, they are happy.

But this will remain an issue.  The more the British depart from EU regulation, the greater the scope for unapproved goods to circulate into the Single Market and therefore greater risk to the integrity of it.  The compensating proposals from the EU would therefore have to have meaningful effect and will grow in impact as Britain diverges from EU requirements, whether arising from its own decisions or from those of changed EU rules.

This is not the declared reason for the new prominence of the ECJ in British demands.  Instead, it is what a NI business representative called “nothing but a Brexit purity issue.”  For him the ECJ “it is not a practical or business issue.”  In fact, for business the Protocol gives unique access to both the UK and EU markets.  Were the British market certain to continue to be the much more lucrative and important the unionists would have little to fear from this parallel opportunity.  However, the growing trade between North and South and the reduced trade between the Irish State and Britain means that their opposition to the Protocol on political grounds is justified even if nationalists deny it. Unfortunately for unionist leaders this political opposition is detrimental to the people they represent, which will not have short term importance but will in the long term.

The unionist commentator Newton Emerson has argued that Irish and EU complaints about British negotiating tactics are a ‘slight loss of perspective’ and that their annoyance is mistaken.  In effect, both sides are at it and it’s a case of ‘all is fair in love and war’ . . . and trade negotiations.  He is however wrong to say that “the fact that Frost is tearing up his own deal is a redundant complaint.  The protocol is being negotiated.”  It matters that the negotiations that are now being conducted are not a first stab at an agreement but follow bad faith negotiations by the British who never intended to implement the deal they signed.

It matters because all the arguments made by Emerson about the ECJ not being necessary for Single Market governance must face up to this.  It is not a matter of whether the NI Protocol can be made amenable to Swiss type arrangements or those governing EU relations with Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, which insert arrangements that put ECJ competence at a greater distance.

Why would the EU agree to Swiss governance arrangements when the British have just rejected Swiss trading arrangements? Why would they seek to introduce arrangements involving numerous bilateral treaties that they already find too onerous and have sought to dispense with?  Why would they seek the governance arrangements applied with Norway etc. when the British specifically rejected the EEA option as the form of Brexit they should seek?  Part of the reason why the EU will not want to agree is that the British cannot be trusted.  

If Emerson wants to critique the statements of Irish politicians in relation to the British approach to negotiations he would be better to start with Varadkar’s nonsense that “for decades, for centuries, British people in many ways were renowned by the fact that they were an honourable people; people whose word you could trust . . .“ And by “people” it should be understood to mean the British state.

Has he not heard of Perfidious Albion?  Has he no knowledge of the Anglo-Irish treaty, with its Boundary Commission, or the promise by the British king in 1921 that the new Northern Ireland parliament would be “an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community . . .’?

The British may reject the mitigations of border checks and alternative arrangements and may demand removal of any role for the ECJ.  If they do, they may proceed with Article 16, which will lead to further negotiations but also opens up the possibility of retaliatory measures against them by the EU.  Tory Brexiteers are still bloviating about the EU needing Britain more than the Brits need the EU but only the blinkered continue to entertain such nonsense.

It is reported that Article 16 may be triggered by the British on narrow grounds that may avoid a fuller EU retaliatory response but we would have to see what such narrow grounds might be and the EU has indicated it is weary of British negotiating tactics.

Even if the EU were to agree to some intervening body between the operation of the Protocol and adjudication by the ECJ, this would not essentially change the fact that there would be a Protocol that would involve a trade border between NI and GB and none between the North and South of Ireland.  It would not change Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets or the economic dynamics released by this arrangement.  It would not put to bed the problems that will arise if the British decide to increasingly diverge from EU rules.  It would not change the enforcement mechanisms ultimately available under the Protocol or wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement and it would not change the power imbalance between the UK and EU.

The attitude socialists should take to all of this should follow from their opposition to the whole reactionary Brexit project, which seeks to reverse the internationalisation of capitalism and the long-achieved broaching of nation state constraints on the productive forces.  Such an international development of capitalism is precisely the material basis for socialism and the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality.

Some on the left have opposed Brexit only by registering its English nationalist clothes and necessarily xenophobic and racist expression, without appreciation of this more fundamental basis.  For some, not even this has dawned on them and they have supported Brexit without being able to demonstrate that it has led to any compensating advance by the working class.

Just as nationalism feeds off other nationalisms so the Brexit war of words has involved Priti Patel advocating the threat to Ireland of food shortages from a no-deal Brexit and the French threatening to deny power supplies to the Channel Islands.  Socialists must oppose all such offensive nationalist threats.  Opposition to Brexit does not mean defence of the policies of the EU but simply recognition that we do not oppose the development of capitalism by demanding it regress to a more primitive form less suited to creation of a new society.

In terms of the Protocol, we oppose the creation of a land border in Ireland as a strengthening of division on the island and recognise that this could only come about from increasing the separation of Britain from the EU, most likely from acrimonious conflict that would have the effect of dividing workers, and not only in Ireland.

Back to part 1

2 thoughts on “The Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit 2 – the cart without a horse

  1. It should be remembered that the EU have not yet relaxed the requirement for checks – though given that Britain has unilaterally failed to implement them makes them moot currently – but has only put that forward as a proposal IF, Britain actually seriously fulfils the rest of its obligations under the Protocol, such as actually properly setting up and staffing the border facilities, and rigorously doing the rest of the checks required. There is doubt that Britain will actually comply with that, and so the offer of these concessions is then itself moot.

    There is also the likelihood, as you say, that the DUP will push for the scrapping of the protocol altogether and the Tories will push the issue of the ECJ. That isn’t going to happen, in which case, the offered concessions again don’t come in, and it heads towards a trade war, in which case all of this becomes small beer.

    Moreover, the EU could afford to make the concessions, because already supply chains have shifted from NI-GB, to NI-Republic, with exports from the South rising by nearly 80% to the North in the last 10 months. The economic rationality seems now inescapable, and it means NI moving further away from GB, and closer to the republic and EU. For the majority in NI who opposed Brexit, the intransigence of the DUP is already being manifested politically, and the intransigence of the Tories will also have a similar consequence. The more the North becomes integrated with, and dependent on the South, the more the possibility of British-Unionist intransigence leading inevitably to a border on the island of Ireland will be met with hostility to Brexit and its agents, and so will feed increased demands for a border poll, and a United Ireland, made even more likely if there is a SF First Minister.

    Would Britain actually be too sorry about that. Possibly not, but they must be getting worried about a bandwagon into Scotland, and even Wales, not to mention potential demands for greater autonomy for a hugely anti-Brexit London, all of which would leave a rapidly declining English rump.

  2. I am in agreement with the statement ‘opposition to Brexit does not mean defence of policies of the EU’. I still have some problem with it though, you say only opposes ‘the polices of the EU’, this is somewhat ambiguous about the main Institutions of the EU.

    The second clause of the same sentence, ‘we do not oppose the development of capitalism by demanding it regress to a more primitive form less suited to the creation of a new society’ does require a deal of explanation and commentary.

    I would say that the internationalisation of economic production is not by definition or economic logic an indicator of social progress, when Lenin and Trotsky were doing their thing the internationalisation of capital was advancing at pace, some economic historians even argue that capital was more international back then than it is in our time, I don’t know if thesis this can be verified or refuted with the sole use of current data.

    The more relevant point being that internationalisation of capital was tightly linked to what used to be called colonial politics or imperialism and this was thought to be a crucial consideration to be assessed by both Lenin and Trotsky.

    I will interpret somewhat by redefining opposition to colonial politics to the more positive sounding notion of being in favour of mass democratic politics, after all Lenin’s national right of self determination was an endorsement of some concept of mass democracy as the norm or standard to be fought for by the workers movement.

    This brings us back to the EU, there is no doubt that part of the brief that the EU is assigned is to further internationalisation of capital, this thesis is also disputed though not by me, I mean the Von Mises web site people argues the exact opposite, namely the EU exists to control and place obstacles in the way of the free movement of capital. I don’t intend to try and settle this economic question either. I don’t try to settle economic questions in general because everything in that intellectual sphere is much disputed.

    The opposition to the EU on may part at least concern the question of democracy as norm and standard. In my reading of the political data in distinction to the economic data the EU is opposed to the further development of democracy as standard, it conducts all of its dealings behind closed in concert with corporate elites, and usually preserves a strict silence about this. I could go on talking about the anti-democratic routines of the EU institutions but I have already quoted you about admitting you are very much opposed to how the EU makes its decisions..

    My implacable opposition and I think of some others to the EU is not founded on disputed points about economic data, the state of the trade balance at one time or other, it is founded on the principles of politics, a defence of democracy as standard and the idea that development or advances in mass democracy should take priority.

    As for the Brexit crowd in England, they only oppose Great Britain not being part of the EU bloc, far from wanting to see the entire deconstruction of the EU, they want to make free trade deals with the bloc in their own narrow class interest, that interest is certainly not for the purpose of the making of a better British Democracy to come, their squabble with the EU is not over the noble cause of a better democracy for all.

    I remain therefore an implacable foe both of the EU and of the Brexit crowd, they are of a similar kind in nature.

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