The European Union launched a legal case on Monday against the United Kingdom over their trade protocol on Northern Ireland. The case marks yet another saga in the U.K.’s seemingly never-ending departure from Europe, as the two sides grapple with one another over trade and border regulations.
British-European haggling over Northern Ireland dates back to the early days of Brexit, but this specific case traces its lineage to a planned piece of legislation in September 2020, in which the U.K. permits themselves to “override key parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement,” as reported in the Financial Times. The policy deals with Northern Ireland’s role in the European trade market. Both sides saw fit to allow relatively open trade between Northern Ireland across its land border with the Republic of Ireland, and agreed to give it a “single market” designation. This designation, however, meant that certain customs checks would have to be performed on goods entering Northern Ireland from the mainland United Kingdom. The UK’s internal bill sought to bypass these regulations by giving British officials unilateral authority over Northern Irish customs.
The proposed legislation immediately drew the ire both of the E.U.and the U.K.’s left wing. The bill was heavily rebuked both by the left-leaning House of Lords and by the powers that be in Brussels, who threatened legal recourse. In December, the U.K. agreed to drop the offending clauses.
This leads us to the current issue. The U.K. withdrawal agreement had permitted a grace period of several months allowing for free trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so as to allow producers time to adjust to new policies. According to the BBC, this grace period was originally set to end on 1 April, but a recent policy has seen the U.K. unilaterally extend it to 1 October. The move is the exact unilateral decision which was authorized in the since-dropped internal September bill. It earned swift retribution from the E.U., who has now threatened to take two different paths of legal recourse if the matter is not imminently settled. Politico reports that the two sides may hold talks, but also allows for arbitration which could end in tariffs placed on British goods.
The UK’s unilateral extension of the grace period was met warmly by much of the Unionist Northern Irish public, who consider themselves part of the United Kingdom, support Brexit, and wish to be treated no differently than the mainland (they also may face higher prices for food products when the grace period ends). The European public, however, including the Republic of Ireland, is largely dissatisfied with the U.K.’s behavior since they voted to leave.
The situation is now in flux. Britain’s left wing and much of its media have called for Boris Johnson to undo the grace period extension, but the prime minister is not one to back down from a fight. The Tory Party has run on anti-European agitation for at least a half-decade, and it’s going to continue so long as its constituents demand it.
After fears of a no-deal Brexit were quelled in January 2020 as British parliament signed the withdrawal agreement, the British public may feel somewhat better than they did a couple years ago. Yet as long as the Conservative Party is in power, the future of U.K.-E.U. relations does not look sparkling. There is endless potential for further technical disputes, and although Brexit is not as popular now as it was when it was passed, the ruling Conservative Party is still firmly in the Leave camp.
None of this, of course, is particularly good for the people living there. Closing one’s economy is sometimes beneficial for developing countries looking to empower their own industries; the U.K. does not exactly fit that description. The U.K.’s economy will suffer, immigration will be reduced, and the British will have to face myriad new bureaucratic challenges in every facet of international life. As Brexit continues to move forward, we can only hope that new diplomatic avenues can be opened to subdue its effects.
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