The British government, in an attempt to tackle the Brexit-created Northern Ireland problem, took a step that Irish and Brussels politicians reacted unusually sharply, claiming that London was an unreliable partner that was breaking treaties.
On Wednesday, the government of Boris Johnson unilaterally, without waiting for the consent of the European Union, decided to extend the simplified inspection regime at the customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom created under the terms of Brexit for six months.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Clowney said Thursday that “the European Union is negotiating with a partner who simply cannot be trusted.”
“The EU is now looking at legal options and legal steps, which will mean a much more formalized and tough negotiation process instead of a partnership where you try to solve problems together,” Coveney added, speaking on the Irish radio RTE morning program.
The vice-president of the European Commission, responsible for relations with Britain, Slovak Maros Shevchovich said that London’s decision violated the provisions of the so-called “Northern Ireland Protocol”, which is part of the general agreement on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
British government officials argue that they have not violated anything and that the protocol gives them the right to such unilateral actions.
“Such measures have precedents in other international agreements and are fully consistent with our intentions to fulfill our obligations under the protocol in good faith,” said the government spokesman David Frost, who, from the post of head of the British delegation in negotiations with the EU, moved to the post of minister for relations with the European Union.
London hinted at unilateral measures to the European Union in early February, when there was the first outbreak of emotions over the Irish border.
Under the “Northern Ireland Protocol”, following Britain’s final withdrawal from the EU earlier this year, customs checks began at ports in Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, by the decision of the parties, actually remained in the single market and customs space of the EU, because if the EU and Britain restored control posts on the state border on the island of Ireland, a bloody conflict could again flare-up in the northern part of the island.
However, the authorities and companies of Britain were not ready for full-scale checks on the new border across the Irish Sea immediately from January 1, and therefore Brussels and London introduced a simplified regime of checks for the first three months.
This simplification lies in the fact that goods for Northern Ireland chain supermarkets and some other retailers pass through customs without unnecessary formalities. At the end of the simplified regime, they will have to receive certificates for meat, milk, and products from them.
The British government convinced that nothing will be ready by the end of March, first called on the EU to extend the simplified regime, and now announced a unilateral extension.
It is not known how the European Union will respond, but one of the members of the European Commission has already hinted at the possible consequences in the most important area of relations for Britain — financial.
“Such things do not promote trust,” said Irish Finance Minister Maria McGuinness, who answered a question from reporters about how the process of issuing permits to companies from the City of London to work in the EU market is going on.
In the agreements that Britain entered into with the EU during the exit process, trade in services, including financial services, is almost not regulated — and this is a major issue for the City and the entire British economy.
Now the parties are negotiating on the financial sphere, but in principle, all the main levers here are in the hands of the European Commission: it has the right, at its discretion, to give British financiers permission to work on the continent — or not.
Northern Ireland was the most pressing issue in Britain’s exit negotiations from the EU — and has remained so after the exit has already taken place.
The 1998 Belfast Accords, which ended years of bloody conflict between supporters and opponents of Ulster’s unification with the rest of Ireland, are largely based on the island’s virtual absence of a border.
While both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland were both members of the European Union, the virtuality of the border was natural and did not pose a problem.
But when Britain decided to leave the EU’s single market and customs space, the parties had to face a challenge with two poorly compatible initial conditions.
On the one hand, the restoration of the real border on the island, by all accounts, was fraught with renewed conflict: supporters of a united Ireland would begin to smash customs posts.