An agreement between the UK and the European Union on trade rules in Northern Ireland after Brexit seems inevitable.
There are three areas of compromise at stake:
– Northern Ireland –
Political leaders in Belfast and London, but also in Brussels and even in Washington, see the fixing of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol as essential.
Brexit has sparked tensions in the British province, which shares a single land border with the EU and has a complicated history.
The protocol was intended to prevent any customs procedures taking place on that border with Ireland, a flashpoint in three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland over British rule.
It keeps the province in the EU single market and customs union by requiring oversight by European courts and requiring inspection of goods coming from the UK mainland.
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But the pro-British unions argue that this weakens Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, and as part of their violent opposition to it, the delegation of power has collapsed.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has vowed not to return until the protocol is repealed or radically revised, leaving Northern Ireland without a devolved government last year.
Political instability followed more than a week of riots over the pact in 2021, mostly in union districts, in which 88 police officers were injured.
There have also been several violent incidents in recent months that are blamed on Republican dissidents seeking reunification with Ireland.
Last week, a senior duty officer was shot dead in what police say was a “terrorism-related” attack by the New IRA splinter group.
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The situation is unnerving for locals and those further away as the United States, which played a key role in negotiating the 1998 peace deal, is particularly calling for a post-Brexit trade compromise.
However, it is not clear if the DUP will accept the expected deal and agree to resume power sharing.
The pro-Irish Sinn Féin, which became the largest party in the assembly after winning elections in May last year, cannot form an executive branch without the participation of the DUP.
– EU-UK relations –
Disputes over the protocol have plagued UK-EU relations since Brexit and are seen as hindering greater cooperation between the two sides.
The UK government has introduced legislation which, if passed, would allow it to unilaterally revoke parts of the pact.
This has angered the EU and is seen as a risk of a wider trade war that could prove devastating to both sides of the English Channel, but especially to the recession-threatening UK.
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Progress on issues such as London’s access to billions of pounds under the Horizon Europe block’s research program has stalled as negotiations on the protocol continued.
The UK is hopeful the deal can now unlock much-needed money.
With the war in Ukraine focusing again on defense and security cooperation in Europe, both sides are seen as keen to put aside recent Brexit hostility and cooperate more closely in these areas.
The growing threat posed by China and the shared concerns of climate change are also seen as ripe for closer ties if the protocol dispute can be resolved.
– UK politics, economics –
The UK has been plagued by political and economic instability since the 2016 EU membership referendum, when the country has been sharply divided between the Leave and Stay camps for several years now.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson used Brexit domestic deadlock fatigue to help secure an 80-seat majority in December 2019 by promising to “see Brexit through.”
But instead of finalizing the divorce cases in the UK, the deal he agreed to, in particular the protocol, left a lot of unfinished business for his eventual successor, Rishi Sunak.
The UK economy is forecast to enter recession this year and be worse off than the rest of the G7, with most Britons seeing Brexit as a failure and misguided, according to polls.
Trade with Europe declined significantly, and exports to non-bloc countries were unable to make up for this shortfall.
The UK’s exit from the bloc and the political uncertainty that followed have also weighed on domestic investment.
This presented Sunak with the political and economic challenge of making Brexit work better and be seen as more successful.
The deal to renegotiate the minutes could be seen as a key move as he prepares for next year’s general election against a resurgent Labor opposition.
But he faces the immediate task of selling any deal to his flighty Conservative Party, and the threat of a devastating uprising by Eurosceptics and those who seek to undermine his rule.