Johnson and Frost can afford another turn of the screw before retreat. The rachet is in their hands

Using the old mantra of Michel Barnier, the clock is ticking on the Protocol negotiations. Even so, picking up from Mick’s references to Irish Times commentator Ronan McCrea, it isn’t obvious to me why at this point  the EU should “play hardball.”  Granted that he fears the damage done in a lengthy arbitration period under the terms of the withdrawal agreement.

..during the lengthy period during which all of these procedures were being worked through, the EU would be faced with a hole in the border of the EU Single Market along the Irish Border. This would place massive pressure on Dublin to impose checks on the Border with the North in order to avoid question marks over full Irish membership of the Single Market.. There are, therefore, good reasons for the EU to go for a much more radical response.

But there are further stages to go before such a point is reached.  In the Lords today, Lord Frost gave one of his sit reps in tones of pained reasonableness, in contrast to you push me pull you threats from the EU and Ireland of a trade war – but we hope not.  Frost is right to say that the threat of a trade war is disproportionate He can claim he has won concessions from the EU; but he is chancing his arm to negotiate in such a provocative and patronising manner

Our European friends should stay calm and keep things in proportion. They might remind themselves that no Government and no country have a greater interest in stability and security in Northern Ireland and in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement than this Government. .

…  I certainly will not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done. We are certainly not at that point yet. If, however, we do in due course reach that point, the Article 16 safeguards will be our only option.

… We have inched a little bit closer; there has been some movement, and that is good. We just are not moving together quickly enough, and the gap is still an extremely wide one. However, there has been some incremental progress. It was our hope that that could have been quicker and more substantive, but we are trying.

Here are details on which Frost is asking for more movement from the EU.

For example, they do not eliminate a single customs declaration for any good moving into Northern Ireland. The famous 50% figure is actually a 50% reduction in the number of fields in the customs declaration, with most of the significant ones still remaining—it is not a 50% elimination of process. On medicines, we still do not have a situation that deals with the reality of the fact that the regulator in Northern Ireland is not the MHRA but the EMA, so there is clearly a risk of divergence and not being able to deliver medicines to the whole country—and we have to deal with that. So they make progress, but they do not take us the whole way there.

There is at least another round in which the EU may offer further mitigations which the UK may finally accept, leaving the DUP  with nowhere else to go. This might happen as early as Friday when Frost next meets EU Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic – but probably not. The timescale to Armageddon is more protracted: a month of talks if Article 16 is invoked; a further year is needed to terminate the withdrawal agreement.   The UK therefore may be able to play EU law against the EU.

Robert Shrimsley in the FT offers this shrewd assessment of what Boris Johnson is up to.

Johnson’s rapid retreat (in the Owen Paterson affair)  reminds his troops that for all the Churchillian rhetoric, he is often the first one heading for the hills when he deems the fight no longer worth his while. This is not always a weakness. Johnson feels no obligation to defend a losing position.      

There is much in the current row (over the Protocol) that suits his style. For most of the year, he brandished the threat to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, which allows a side to suspend part of the agreement if it is causing serious “social or economic damage”. What should be an escape valve for specific problems is seen by Johnson as a lever to try to rewrite the deal. This moment is moving closer and has provoked bellicose retaliatory threats from the EU, though Frost has said the UK “is not there yet”. But if and when Johnson triggers the process, he can start small and ratchet up. The mechanisms allow for delays before each EU response, which means he can back away if the price, be it targeted retaliatory tariffs or more disruptive checks at Calais, seems too high. Even the nuclear option floated by Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney — of terminating the UK/EU trade deal — requires a year’s notice, giving Johnson time, though at the price of economic uncertainty.    

the second lesson is that Johnson will retreat when outgunned. The history of his Brexit negotiations is of talking tough and then giving in. The fight over the protocol highlights just how thoroughly he caved in when he signed it in 2019. A year later he accepted a trade agreement that secured few advantages. For all his fighting talk of walking away with no deal, Johnson never did. Since his core demands go beyond what the EU is prepared to grant, it is a reasonable bet that the same will be true again.

His allies may cheer a premier battling Brussels but they and the media could quickly turn in the face of economic damage and empty shelves. This means his own cheerleaders need to give him the room to retreat when he is ready.

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