Chaos in Northern Ireland
For now at least, the UK government’s approach will further strain relations with the European Union, still the country’s biggest trading partner by a long way.
At the heart of the issue is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was included in the Brexit deal to avoid the return of a physical border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which is a member of the European Union.
Border checks and guard posts disappeared following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the island of Ireland after 30 years of violent conflict between Catholic nationalists, who want a unified country, and Protestants who are loyal to the United Kingdom.
The European Union worried that a physical barrier could once again become a source of tension, and it would not agree to police the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to protect the integrity of the EU market. Johnson, who helped lead the campaign for Brexit, instead agreed that Northern Ireland would remain subject to EU market rules, and to check goods flowing from the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland.
But those new checks on goods moving between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland have created chaos, upending supply chains, adding costs to businesses and reducing the availability of certain products in Northern Ireland supermarkets. According to the UK government, at least 200 businesses in Britain have stopped servicing the nation due to post-Brexit red tape.
On Thursday, the British Generic Manufacturers Association, a trade body for manufacturers of generic medicines, said onerous new trading rules have forced its companies to put on notice over 2,000 medicines for withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
The UK government now wants “significant change” to the Protocol, which it acknowledges in a paper published this week is the cause of “most of the current friction” with the European Union. It is effectively trying to renegotiate a deal it agreed to seven months ago, putting forward proposals that it knows the European Union cannot accept.
The paper “reads like a client’s submission to their divorce lawyer — full of blame-shifting, faux sadness and passive aggression,” Winters and Michael Gasiorek of the UK Trade Policy Observatory wrote in a blog on Thursday.
“It reflects weakness and can only serve to diminish the Government’s international standing,” they added.
The United Kingdom has a lot at stake. Brexit has added costs to British exporters, knocking trade with their most important market and hurting economic growth in the long run. It needs new trade deals to offset some of the damage caused by Brexit.
But if it fails to honor treaties it has already signed, the UK government might find it more difficult to secure agreements on favorable terms with other countries, including the United States.