The threat to ‘global Britain’
“We will not agree to a renegotiation of the Protocol,” European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said in a statement on Wednesday. “Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance,” he added.
This sentiment is shared by Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand — a country with which Britain is currently engaged in trade talks and which has the power to prevent it from joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The CPTPP is an 11-country free trade pact that includes Mexico, Australia, Canada and Singapore. While it won’t compensate for the economic losses arising from Brexit, it has nonetheless been described by UK Trade Secretary Liz Truss as a “glittering post-Brexit prize.”
In a speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs earlier this month, Ardern said that New Zealand had agreed to negotiations that will pave the way for the United Kingdom to join the partnership.
“CPTPP is our highest quality agreement,” she added. “Those aspiring to join will have to be able to meet its high standards.”
Some trade experts interpreted the comment as being directed at Britain. “If it wasn’t intended for the UK it was a completely wasted breath,” Winters said.
Even more pointed warnings have come from other quarters. For any UK government, a trade deal with the United States would be by far the biggest economic victory of a post-Brexit Britain.
That has always looked a long shot, given that neither former President Donald Trump nor current President Joe Biden have had much appetite to sign up to major international treaties, amid a broader shift away from trade liberalization.
But the UK government’s recent actions aren’t helping its cause. In a statement this week, US Democratic Congressman Brendan Boyle rebuked the UK government’s approach to Northern Ireland and highlighted “strong bipartisan” support for the Good Friday Agreement.
“The British government negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed to it, and its Parliament voted for it. Yet almost immediately after it went into effect, the British government has tried to evade its responsibilities under the protocol,” he said.
“Their latest statement and proposed changes just continues this trend and serves only to further destabilize Northern Ireland,” he added.
While Biden has been clear that his focus lies mainly on domestic issues, he has also repeatedly warned Britain against making the Good Friday Agreement a “casualty of Brexit.”
“Biden has a specific interest in Northern Ireland and its stability, and does view the UK as the antagonist in that discussion,” said Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
“Ongoing disputes with the EU over Northern Ireland and threats to renege on commitments creates a problem with the US, but I’m not convinced it creates huge problems with any other countries,” he added.
David Henig, UK director at the European Centre for International Political Economy, said that other countries may view the spat over Northern Ireland as a unique case.
“Other countries will certainly be aware that the UK is going back on [its agreements with the European Union], but each negotiation is separate,” Henig said. “It will not be viewed as a particularly good thing but I’m not sure that they won’t segregate it away from their own discussions. Northern Ireland clearly is a special case.”
With grace periods on checks on some goods flowing between Britain and Northern Ireland set to expire at the end of September, including animal products such as chilled meats, more political wrangling between the United Kingdom and European Union lies ahead.
“I can quite easily see this carrying on for quite a while without a change,” said Henig.
“The state of uncertainty might become the status quo,” added Lowe.
Northern Ireland will bear the brunt of this sorry state of affairs. But Johnson’s dream of a “global Britain” will also suffer consequences.