In a column published on September 12th in the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, claimed that the European Union wanted to « blockade one part of the United Kingdom (UK), to cut it off ». According to him, Northern Ireland and the integrity of the UK are in danger because of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a section of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which regulates the future of Northern Ireland.
The fear of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been present since the 2016 referendum on Brexit. Even though 52 % of UK voters voted to leave the European Union (EU), 56 % of voters in Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the EU.
From that moment on, the question of the Irish border has been at the heart of negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU. Both sides wanted to prevent the creation of a hard border to check goods and tariffs. It was feared that such a border could revive tensions between unionists and republicans, which had been put to an end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The solution found by then Prime Minister Theresa May was the backstop : the UK would temporarily remain in the single market so that a border would not be necessary. But the backstop failed to win the backing of the British parliament. Conservative MPs feared that Britain would not be able to negotiate trade deals with other countries since it would still be subject to EU rules.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, which is included in the Withdrawal Agreement signed in January 2020, then replaced the backstop. It states that only Northern Ireland remains in the EU’s customs zone, in order to avoid checks on goods at the Irish border. Instead, the checks on tariffs would be made at ports in the UK and Northern Ireland, thus creating a border located in the Irish Sea.
Boris Johnson’s statement, even partly based on truths, appears to be exaggerated. The Brexit Agreement is indeed going to challenge the UK’s integrity. On January 1st, 2021 (the day it is supposed to be implemented, after the transition period during which nothing changed), different rules will apply in the United Kingdom : whilst England, Wales and Scotland will leave the European single market, Northern Ireland will in effect remain. The two parts will be separated by an invisible but effective border. Therefore, to a certain extent, we can say that the agreement breaks the UK’s integrity: Northern Ireland will enforce some rules of the EU’s single market, which would create some discrepancy in the UK’s internal market.
However, Boris Johnson’s claim is excessive. First of all, the Withdrawal Agreement will not « cut off » Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. If the UK were to conclude a trade deal with another country, the terms of that deal would apply to Northern Ireland as well. It is also worth noting that this claim was made to justify the Internal Market Bill, which is currently being examined by the House of Lords. It would allow the UK to keep control over regulations inside its four nations, which would be a breach of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The « blockade » mentioned by the British Prime Minister is also highly unlikely. The UK and the EU are still negotiating the details of the future border, which is not going to be completely hermetic. For example, tariffs would not apply to the goods coming from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland and remaining on Northern Irish soil. They would be repaid to the importers.
Finally, a possible lack of food for Northern Ireland could not come from the EU, but from the UK itself. Negotiations are still underway to determine whether the EU will deliver third-country approval to the UK to allow it to export agricultural products on the single market. But at the moment, the British have failed to give the EU all the sanitary guarantees needed to receive the precious agreement.
The Prime Minister’s statement is partly false. Even though Northern Ireland will still be subject to some EU regulations, it will still be a full part of the United Kingdom. The new expected regulations will not create any blockade nor cut Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK.
Nicolas Chamontin and Marie Delumeau