The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson ripped up part of his Brexit deal with Europe

The ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ was supposed to solve Brexit’s border issue

An anti-Brexit group protests the arrival of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Northern Ireland on May 16. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
6 min

After months of speculation, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has introduced legislation to the U.K. Parliament that would allow it to overturn key elements of the “Northern Ireland Protocol.” This protocol was a key part of Britain’s Brexit deal. It was supposed to prevent the return of a customs border between Northern Ireland, which was now no longer part of the European Union, and the Republic of Ireland, which still was a member. Northern Ireland unionists hated the Protocol, and many members of the Conservative Party didn’t like it either. Now, the Conservative government has granted itself the power to change the agreement unilaterally.

If the U.K. government uses its powers under the legislation, it will be taking some big political risks. First, it will set off a major fight with the European Union, which might retaliate with trade measures that would damage the U.K. economy, which is already reeling from global uncertainty and the costs of Brexit. Second, it will damage relations with the United States too. Members of Congress have made it clear that they will block a new trade deal, which the U.K. desperately wants, if it does anything to damage peace in Northern Ireland. So why did Johnson do it? Most likely, he wanted to shore up his shaky leadership of a divided political party.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was supposed to maintain peace

For decades, Northern Ireland was torn by violence and disputes between unionists, who want it to remain part of the U.K., and nationalists, who want it to join the Republic of Ireland. The E.U. helped bring about peace in the 1990s. Both the U.K. and Ireland were members of the E.U., which minimizes internal customs control and maintains a shared market for goods and services. They didn’t need to have customs controls on the politically contentious border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, making it less relevant and visible.

All that changed when the U.K. left the E.U. and decided (after internal controversy) to withdraw from the E.U.’s market arrangements too. Suddenly, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic became relevant again. New customs barriers might make the border a target for dissident nationalist paramilitaries.

That was the problem that the Northern Ireland Protocol was supposed to fix. After hard negotiations, Britain and the E.U. agreed that Northern Ireland would remain part of the E.U.’s market arrangements. That allowed free trade with the Republic, but at the cost of complicating economic relations between Northern Ireland and the U.K. Unionists — and some British Conservatives — were unhappy, because they believed that the deal created a new invisible border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

That led to further negotiations between the E.U. and U.K. and eventually an impasse. Now, after months of signaling, the U.K. government has introduced new legislation that would allow it to unilaterally get rid of the parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol that it doesn’t like. Johnson claims that the legislation is justified by an unexpected “genuinely exceptional situation.” However, members of the U.K. government have had trouble explaining what, if anything, has happened, that wasn’t expected when Britain signed the agreement.

The U.K. is taking an enormous risk

Johnson’s legislation carries a number of political risks. Dissident Conservatives have argued that the legislation is illegal under international law (there is evidence that one of the government’s most important legal advisers agrees with them). It also risks provoking a trade war with the E.U., which is a much bigger economy than the U.K., meaning that the U.K. is likely to come off worse in a fight.

Finally, both the White House and senior U.S. politicians have said they are unhappy with the U.K. initiative. That makes it much less likely that a proposed U.K.-U.S. trade deal will be completed and get through Congress. Advocates claimed that Brexit would allow the U.K. to strike its own, better trade deals outside the E.U. Now, the U.K.’s Brexit policy is making it harder rather than easier to reach an agreement.

So why is Johnson insisting on getting the legislation through? Few British observers believe his claimed focus on the political stability of Northern Ireland and unionist discontent. After all, he was perfectly willing to throw unionists overboard to reach the initial deal with the E.U.

Instead, most point to Johnson’s political difficulties with his own party. Johnson survived a recent attempt by dissident members of Parliament to depose him as Conservative leader, but only by 211 votes to 148. His leadership is badly damaged, and may be further dented if his party loses two forthcoming by elections.

The Northern Ireland Protocol and the E.U. are detested by many of the Conservative MPs whom he wants to keep on his side. Passing the legislation may help protect his leadership of the party in the short-term, even if it hurts the British economy in years to come.

The E.U. is delaying its response

The E.U. has indicated it will begin a legal action against the U.K. sometime this week. However, it is likely to hold off on direct retaliation for the moment. A battle with the E.U. might be just what Johnson wants, allowing him to blame Brussels for the U.K.’s poor economic situation. Furthermore, it is not clear that retaliation would push the U.K. to make a deal. Johnson is likely too politically weak to shepherd any compromise through Parliament. Nor is it clear that he and his government would be more willing to honor any commitments they made than they were when they negotiated the Protocol.

The coming months are likely to see further bitter words being exchanged, but no substantial change, while everyone waits to see what happens to Johnson. His political weakness led to this legislation, but it may also prevent a new deal from emerging: No one wants to make a deal with a prime minister with a doubtful political future, who has already reneged on one agreement.