The relief was great in December, but now it has given way to disillusionment and worry. Shortly before the end of the year, the EU and Britain struck a trade deal, preventing the introduction of tariffs. At the same time, London and Brussels have agreed on special rules for Northern Ireland. But now, eight months later, this so-called Northern Ireland Protocol has been shown not to work. Worse still: the British do not want to implement the requirements well and prefer to renegotiate. This plunges the EU into a very bad dilemma.
The purpose of the protocol is to avoid customs officials having to inspect trucks between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. After all, if the border becomes visible again, it could strain the peace process in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the protocol stipulates that the former troubled province will continue to comply with EU product rules and customs regulations despite Brexit. The logical consequence, however, is that deliveries of goods from England, Wales or Scotland to Northern Ireland must be checked. Because once the trucks have left the ports of Northern Ireland, they can travel to the south of the island without further control, i.e. to the EU – and from there by ferry to the other Member States.
Brussels made a very big concession here and gave the British a huge leap of faith. After all, the common internal market is at the heart of the European Union. Goods can be sold from one EU country to another without any bureaucratic hurdles, and consumers can safely buy products from other EU countries – the safety standards are the same. Looseness on the inside forces harshness on the outside: in ports, airports and external land borders, authorities must prevent dangerous goods from entering the internal market, because what is inside can hardly be stopped.
British officials in the ports of Northern Ireland are now taking on this important task. Brussels has therefore partly entrusted the integrity of the internal market to a third State; Boris Johnson is partly responsible for ensuring that no substandard and incorrectly declared imported meat ends up on the refrigerated counter of supermarkets in Rostock or Rome. It sounds bold, but the EU accepted it in the name of peace in Northern Ireland. However, Prime Minister Johnson does not want to implement the protocol as agreed. He is hampered by the controls and bureaucracy involved in deliveries from the rest of the Kingdom to Northern Ireland. Because unfortunately, he promised voters that there would be no such checks.
Johnson could just ignore the sanctions
This scandalous breach of contract does not yet pose a major risk to the internal market; the same high product standards apply in the UK and the EU. It should therefore not be a problem if food from England enters Northern Ireland and from there into the EU without proper controls. However, Johnson wants to deviate from EU rules in the future: this is the essential aim of Brexit. Additionally, criminals are still looking for insecure gateways to the EU’s internal market – and may soon prefer deliveries to Northern Ireland ports.
There is little the EU can do to remedy this. Replacing the vices on ferries between the Republic of Ireland and France would degrade Ireland into a second-class member of the domestic market – this is not an option. Your best bet would of course be to persuade the British to comply with international treaties after all: with sanctions. In fact, the European Commission has already initiated proceedings, but it may take time for them to ultimately result in punitive tariffs. There is also the risk that Johnson will let such sanctions unfold. The applause of the Brexit camp always seems to him more important than the well-being of the economy.
If there is no other solution, the EU will eventually have to set up truck checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It would be an admission of failure, it could lead to a new terror in Northern Ireland, it would be terrible. Even so, this may be the only way to protect the internal market and its 450 million consumers.