This weekend’s G7 summit is the first time the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful democracies have met in person since the start of the pandemic. There should have been a laser focus on coordinating global action on the pandemic and laying the ground for more ambitious international agreement at November’s UN summit on averting catastrophic climate change. Yet thanks to Boris Johnson’s dogmatic approach to Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol and EU-UK trade relations are providing a major distraction, with officials from the Biden administration warning the UK it must compromise on border checks in order to avoid inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland.
A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that British refusal to implement a trade agreement with its allies and closest trading partner might undermine the trust and good faith so important to achieving international cooperation. It is a symbol of how much Johnson appears willing to stake in terms of Britain’s global reputation and stability in Northern Ireland for the sake of a fanatical commitment to the idea that the UK should not agree to regulatory alignment with the EU, even to the extent agreed by countries like Canada and Japan.
The Good Friday agreement that carved a settlement in which people living in Northern Ireland could feel Irish, British or both, was predicated on both Ireland and the UK being members of the single market and customs union, eliminating the need for any border between the two countries. A hard Brexit in which the UK refuses point-blank to align with EU standards and regulations for some goods is impossible to achieve without either imposing border checks on the island of Ireland, or in the Irish Sea, or compromising the integrity of the EU’s single market.
The compromise reached was that Northern Ireland would remain aligned with EU rules and regulations that affect trade in goods, avoiding the need for border checks on the island of Ireland, but necessitating checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It was a true compromise: the UK accepted the Good Friday agreement necessitated some alignment for Northern Ireland. The EU agreed to separate its four freedoms to enable Northern Ireland to remain in the single market for goods; for the UK, a non-member state, to enforce the border checks to protect the single market, requiring significant trust in the UK; and for the arrangement to be subject to a democratic vote every four years in Northern Ireland assembly.
Johnson’s actions on signing the protocol jeopardised the trust that would be needed to make this unique agreement function. It was critical that he built support for these arrangements with unionists; instead, he brazenly lied by claiming the protocol would require no checks in the Irish Sea. Last autumn, he tried to get a bill through parliament that would have allowed the UK to unilaterally break this international agreement. The government has done little to prepare for the end of the protocol’s grace periods that delay introduction of border checks; instead of negotiating to extend these, the UK announced it would be extending them without any dialogue. It is again threatening to do this in relation to chilled meats. David Frost, the UK chief negotiator, has chosen to approach sensitive negotiating moments by writing aggressively grandstanding opinion columns accusing the EU of acting belligerently and in bad faith.
The EU hasn’t always helped matters – its decision to temporarily invoke article 16 measures to guard against the movement of vaccines into the UK from Ireland was undoubtedly a grave error, which it has admitted. But responsibility for the erosion of trust between the UK and the EU, and the consequences for Northern Ireland, lies overwhelmingly with Johnson and Frost.
The risks for Northern Ireland are grave. The 1998 Good Friday agreement was always going to require care and nurture from political parties in Northern Ireland, and the UK and Irish governments, to protect the fragile equilibrium that brought peace. Theresa May jeopardised this by forming a political alliance with the DUP, junking the UK government’s status as a neutral arbiter. For Johnson, Northern Ireland has been an afterthought in his dogmatic drive for the hardest of Brexits. The UK refused to agree to a level of regulatory alignment with the EU that, for example, countries such as Japan and Canada agreed to, regardless of the costs for Northern Ireland. This risks further inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland ahead of the marching season.
There are also broader consequences of Johnson’s actions. This G7 summit serves as a useful reminder that the international cooperation needed to confront the biggest global challenges is fostered on trust, friendship and personal relationships. His approach to diplomacy instead centres around dishonesty, tearing up compromises and threats of unilateral action. He will greatly diminish Britain’s role in the world and its ability to help broker the international action so urgently needed to address climate catastrophe, microbial resistance and the threat of another pandemic.
But there is perhaps no greater indictment of Johnson’s premiership than his determination to put picking a symbolic fight with our European allies ahead of the stability and security of a part of the UK. The nation will continue to pay the price for the incompetent and dishonourable way he is choosing to govern Britain.