To analyse. Who can claim to read Boris Johnson’s mind? The British Prime Minister has the reputation of being an opportunist without great convictions but endowed with a bluffing capacity to come out of the bad steps of a pirouette or a change of foot at the last minute. Dominic Cummings, the ex-architect of the Brexit referendum campaign, who was his special adviser but now hates him, calls him “ the supermarket trolley “ – because he would be unable to stay the course.
What will Mr Johnson decide regarding Northern Ireland? It has been months since he let David Frost, his minister responsible for relations with the European Union, multiply provocations against Brussels and threaten at any time to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol, of which he calls for a substantial revision. “The conditions are met”, assures this ex-diplomat, one of the rare authentic brexiters of the Foreign Office. The Northern Irish Protocol is a crucial part of the UK-European Union (EU) Divorce Treaty, governing the province’s dual status – it is still part of the UK, but remains in the internal market European Union for trade in goods. However, Article 16 allows one of the signatories of the protocol to unilaterally suspend all or part of it if he considers that it entails “Serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties likely to persist or to lead to commercial disruptions”.
Confidence is so broken with Europeans that some, in Brussels and Paris, think that these threats around Article 16, just like the tensions over migration in the Channel or fishing licenses, essentially serve domestic policy objectives. Mr. Johnson would keep these fronts open only to better “hold the ranks” in his conservative party, always fond of a controversy with the Europeans, or to distract the British from his mistakes. He would therefore have little interest in quickly finding common ground with the EU.
Attack on the identity of loyalists
The reality is undoubtedly more complex. Because the protocol, as it was signed by London and Brussels at the end of 2019, has real weaknesses. Designed to avoid the return of a physical border to the island of Ireland, it introduced a customs border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. “The protocol causes supply disruptions [les biens doivent passer par un contrôle douanier et phytosanitaire]. And he does not have the support of the Northern Irish loyalist community ”, explains Anton Spisak, one of the heads of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. The border in the Irish Sea makes trade within the United Kingdom more expensive and loyalists see it as an attack on their identity. Even the most moderate of the Unionist Party of Ulster want an overhaul of the protocol.
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Boris Johnson is playing dangerously with Europe