EXPLAINER: Why are the UK and the EU still arguing over Brexit?.
“Get Brexit done” was the slogan of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he ran for election two years ago. Since then, after more than four decades of membership and several years of dispute over terms of divorce, Britain has left the European Union.
And yet the dispute continues: Great Britain and the EU, which now has 27 nations, are again exchanging accusations and insults in order to resolve hot spots in their relationship.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
The current conflict is centered in Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that shares a land border with an EU member – Ireland.
Although the UK was part of the EU’s huge single free trade market, there were no barriers to people and goods crossing the border. The open border helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland, because if it allowed people there to feel at home in both Ireland and the UK, regardless of their identity
With Great Britain’s exit from the EU’s economic order, Brexit creates new trade barriers and controls. Both Great Britain and the EU agreed that such controls should not take place on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland because of the danger to the peace process.
The alternative was to set up a customs border in the Irish Sea – between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the UK, threatening their British identity.
WHY IS THE UK-EU CONFLICT COMING OUT NOW?
Problems have been mounting since the UK left the economic embrace of the EU, including the single market, in late 2020.
Under the divorce agreement, the UK government had to put in place customs controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. To the annoyance of the EU, it has repeatedly postponed its introduction.
Specific problems have arisen in relation to agricultural and food products – most notably an impending ban on imports of chilled meat products from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland, which made headlines over a “sausage war”.
Resistance from Northern Irish trade unionists to the agreement has hardened. Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, said Tuesday: “If it is not replaced, it will doom Northern Ireland to further damage and instability”.
Anger over the new deal helped fuel several nights of violence in Northern Ireland in April, particularly in Protestant areas, with youths hurling bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs at police.
This has led the UK government to argue that the Brexit deal itself – negotiated and agreed by the UK and the EU – is undermining the peace process.
WHAT DOES THE EU SAY?
The EU agrees that the Northern Ireland agreements are not working well. She plans to come up with proposals on Wednesday to solve the trade problems by eliminating many physical checks.
On the eve of this step, Great Britain increased its stakes again and called on the EU to also remove the European Court of Justice as the final arbitrator of the Brexit agreement and instead agree to international arbitration.
The EU will most likely not accept that. The bloc’s highest court is considered the culmination of the EU’s internal market, and Brussels has vowed not to undermine its own order.
The UK’s demand has led some in the EU to question whether Johnson’s administration ever seriously adhered to the deal.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The EU and UK say they will have several weeks of “intense” discussions on the latest proposals.
The talks could lead to a breakthrough or breakdown; the signals are mixed. On the one hand, there were moments during Brexit when Britain threatened to leave without a deal, only to compromise at the last minute. This could be someone else.
But if the UK government persists in excluding a role for the European Court of Justice, there is little room for compromise.
In that case, the UK says it will trigger an emergency clause that will allow either side to suspend the Brexit deal if it causes exceptional hardship. Such a move would enrag the EU, which is likely to respond with legal action and possibly economic sanctions against the UK
It could turn into a full-blown trade war – one that is likely to hit the UK economy harder than that of the much larger bloc.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, meanwhile, are threatening to overthrow the power-sharing government of Belfast if the deal is not torn apart, a move that would spark elections and plunge the region into new uncertainty.