Simon Usherwood / Oct 2022
Maroš Šefčovič. Photo: Shutterstock
For the first time since Covid I was back in Brussels, to speak on a panel about the Northern Ireland Protocol and to catch up with some contacts. The value of such face-to-face Interactions was vividly demonstrated to me by the quality of debate, even if Belgian weather leaves something to be desired.
The mood of the discussion was necessarily coloured by the continuing ructions in British politics: my aside that my contribution to the panel would have to be understood in the context on not having looked at Twitter for 15 minutes was less flippant by the first audience question starting off with the latest senior ministerial resignation. The difficulty for the EU of dealing with an ever-changing cast of counterparts in London – not to mention a highly unstable set of policy priorities – makes it very much harder to imagine major resolutions of key questions emerging in the near future.
But this also underlined another key structural feature of British European policy: the unwillingness (or inability) to make long-term strategic decisions.
The Protocol is a very obvious case in point.
The current impasse hangs on the profound difficulties of squaring the needs of the different parties relative to each other. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement created an entanglement of structures and roles for the various communities in Northern Ireland, the British and Irish governments as well as the guarantors of the Agreement. The UK also wants to maintain the same degree of integration of Northern Ireland as before withdrawal, while the EU seeks to preserve the integrity of its single market.
The Protocol’s approach to this was to place Northern Ireland in an intermediate position, trying to make the need for any hard border as small as possible; a framework on which to build through mutual actions and underpinned by trust in counterparts’ intentions.
We do not need to rehearse the issues that have actually arisen, although we might note that technical cooperation has progressed, albeit more slowly than planned, even if the politics has remained deeply problematic.
However, all this misses the reason for the Protocol’s existence in the first place.
In the autumn of 2016, Theresa May was trying to work out how to approach the coming Article 50 negotiations. That work was partly a consequence of the complete (and intentional) absence of planning prior to the referendum: David Cameron had instructed civil servants not to do such work for fear it would suggest a lack of confidence in the outcome. But it was also driven by May’s need to demonstrate to Tory MPs that her conversion to the Leave camp was earnest and complete.
Policy choices were being made at that time in an extremely small circle around the Prime Minister, mainly because there was concern not to look beholden to any special interests. And the political expediencies that created produced the decision not to seek British participation in either the single market or the customs union.
That made sense in the context of May’s position in her party, but it also created the situation that necessitated the need for some special arrangement for Northern Ireland. Northern Irish voices had not been represented in the decision, any more than voices from any other section of society had been included. What worked (for a while) for party management didn’t necessarily work for others beyond Westminster.
And so the UK was launched into a process that continues to this day: of all the forces sustaining the Northern Ireland dilemma, it is British non-participation in the single market/customs union that looks the least robust or principled. As many observers note, there was nothing in the referendum decision that required any particular form of withdrawal from the EU or any particular future EU-UK relationship.
The failure to create an inclusive and strategic mode of policy-making on European issues created the Protocol issues, just as the desire to talk tough on renegotiation today continues the tradition.
As the UK undergoes another bout of turmoil in Westminster, politicians might want to consider whether this is not an opportunity to recast their way of doing things, to lessen the chances of this happening all over again in a few months.
This isn’t to say that the outcome of that is necessarily closer relations with the EU, or capitulating on the various points that the Commission has flagged since the Protocol came into effect, but it is does mean having a clearer sight of what the UK’s underlying interests might be and, by extension, what policy is trying to achieve.
Politics obviously has to respond to immediate demands, but the more we can raise our eyes to plan where we might be trying to get to, the better the chances that our actions will get us there, whatever obstacles might appear on the way.