The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Britain and Europe Should Work Together on Northern Ireland

Placeholder while article actions load

It’s beyond disappointing that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose to escalate his quarrel with the European Union at this moment, with war raging in Ukraine and unity in the face of Russian aggression of surpassing importance. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising.

At issue is the Northern Ireland Protocol, a part of the exit deal Britain struck with the EU in 2020 that controls trade to and from the province. No doubt, it was poorly designed and needs attention. But it can and should be mended through cooperation — certainly not by Johnson threatening to tear up an agreement he himself championed.

Brexit’s implications for Northern Ireland have overshadowed this ill-conceived venture from the start. To guard against a resurgence of sectarian strife in the North, maintaining an open border with the Irish republic was vital, a crucial component of the Good Friday Agreement that delivered an uneasy peace nearly 25 years ago. This meant that the province would remain part of the EU’s single market after Brexit — requiring in turn a customs border in the Irish Sea between the North and the rest of the UK. The protocol was devised to formalize these arrangements.

Brexit made trade across the new border more costly and complicated, delivering an economic blow to the province and pushing it farther away from Britain and closer toward a reunion with Ireland. In recent elections, Sinn Fein (which seeks a united Ireland) won a plurality of seats in the province’s legislative assembly for the first time. The Democratic Unionists (who want to remain part of the UK) are now in the minority; as long as the protocol stays in place, they say they’ll refuse to take their seats in the power-sharing assembly, rendering it impotent.

Johnson has chosen to bend to the DUP’s pressure and appease his own party’s hardline Brexiters who’ve opposed the protocol all along. The prime minister is telling Europe, Change the protocol or I’ll scrap it unilaterally. Europe is saying, No deal: Ditch the protocol and there’ll be a trade war.

It is a characteristically Johnsonian mess — chiefly of his own making, born of boasting, bombast, outright dishonesty and refusal to think ahead. But that doesn’t make it any less of a threat, and not just to Britain and Northern Ireland. He should back down and withdraw his ultimatum. The DUP should take its place in the assembly and let government resume. And the EU should stifle its exasperation and recognize its own interest in helping this retreat along.

The last thing Europe and the UK need right now is another economic setback. Ireland, too, ought to ponder the risks to its own prosperity if peace in the North should break down. The EU should resist the understandable temptation to celebrate the UK’s continuing post-Brexit embarrassment, and see that greater flexibility in applying the protocol is entirely feasible.

Bear in mind that goods flow between the UK and Europe without tariffs. The frictions affecting trade between Northern Ireland and Britain arise from the two sides’ now-separate regulatory systems. But since the UK and Europe apply broadly equivalent standards, labyrinthine border procedures serve little purpose. Bureaucracy at borders is standard operating procedure everywhere, and the UK had no right to expect that Europe would make its post-Brexit commerce as easy as before. But compromise is surely possible. Light-touch supervision, based on “trusted traders” and other accommodations, would suffice to protect Europe’s single market from the doubtless grave hazards posed by British goods.

Johnson is to blame for this shambles, and for whatever consequences follow. But Ireland and the rest of the EU have their own interests to think of. It will cost them nothing to help him back down.

More From  Bloomberg Opinion:

• Brexit Threats in Wartime Are Doubly Mistaken: Lionel Laurent

Boris Johnson Is Focused on the Wrong Problem in Northern Ireland: Therese Raphael

Brexit Boosted Exports of Rich British Bankers: Mark Gilbert

(Corrects 4th paragraph to say Sinn Fein won a plurality of the votes.)

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

More stories like this are available on

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.