I do wonder where all this talk of “war” is going to take us. Like the chatter about an imminent United Ireland, when the latest polling evidence indicates most people in Northern Ireland are happy enough, it’s largely just chatter. For now.
Ronan McCrea in the Irish Times today expresses real frustration on the Irish side with the way things are going:
With London walking away from the compromises it made and no good options available, Brussels may well conclude that its best option is to call the UK’s bluff and threaten to terminate the TCA.
The Northern Ireland protocol came into being in 2019 because the British were unwilling to endure a no-deal Brexit. With London repudiating the core provisions of the protocol, the only way to save it may be to make it clear that acting in this manner means enduring the no-deal outcome that Johnson was unwilling to countenance two years ago.
All of which, Frost’s command paper has already, painstakingly, put back on the table.
One unionist friend noted last week, the threat to invoke Article 16 is integral to the protocol. An alarm or a safe word to be uttered if the going gets too tough for one party or the other. Indeed the Commission were the first to invoke it.
And clipping onwards to a no deal is an outcome Johnson has played with before, and the Brexiteers have always been happy to consider since it complies with their view of primacy of sovereignty within the political-economy trilemma.
Tom McTeague of The Atlantic draws on Roderick Crawford’s essay for Policy Exchange puts a rather different, less complementary construction on the matter:
The CRUCIAL point: “The EU ‘forced’* the UK to accept a solution that worked legally for the EU but worked neither operationally nor politically in the context of Northern Ireland.” Reinforced below👇 7/17
*not forced—May could have fought and made case for no-deal to parliament pic.twitter.com/PyqPPVMsU5
— Tom McTague (@TomMcTague) November 9, 2021
The weakness of the UK position in the negotiations is another warning about the wisdom of going for a bust-out policy when you only have 52% of the UK population behind you. What’s changed is Johnson now has an 80 seat majority.
Domestically he can (and does) do almost anything he likes. The primary mandate from the 2019 general election was effectively to ‘get Brexit done’, and if he’s ‘forced’ to crack some Delft on the way out it’s something he will luxuriate in.
Tom then turns to another interesting piece, this time from Rory Montgomery, a former Irish diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to the European Union, in the Dublin Review 0f Books.
In it, Montgomery notes that although Enda Kenny at “the Magill summer school in July 2016, mused about smart technology and licence plate recognition”, he had dropped that position by January 2017 before Varadkar took over:
It became our firm position that any checks or controls anywhere on the island would constitute a hard border. The Commission picked this up and moved to make regulatory alignment the centrepiece of its approach.
One good reason for our changing our position was the emphatic way in which Theresa May had set out her red lines, which would clearly lead to very significant divergence between the UK and EU.
But another was that regular Commission officials (not Barnier and the taskforce) adopted a completely orthodox approach to the full application of EU law in any arrangement. We would have been banging our heads against a brick wall had we continued to look for more flexibility at that time.
That, for me at least, fills an important gap in my previous understanding of what was going on at the time. It also clarifies the nature of the crisis going forward and what the tensions are (and how horribly irresolvable they may be).
All of which takes me back to Dani Rodik’s observations made in the teeth of the Euro crisis in May 2010:
The crisis has revealed how demanding globalization’s political prerequisites are. It shows how much European institutions must still evolve to underpin a healthy single market. The choice that the EU faces is the same in other parts of the world: either integrate politically, or ease up on economic unification.
Before the crisis, Europe looked like the most likely candidate to make a successful transition to the first equilibrium – greater political unification. Now its economic project lies in tatters while the leadership needed to rekindle political integration is nowhere to be seen.
Dilemma or trilemma, it hasn’t gone away you know?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty