“Two fingers to the EU” as UK goes it alone on Brexit

Posted By: March 09, 2021


Email clarification, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, to author of article by

Fr. McManus: “Dear Aiden: I am the Founder President of the Irish National Caucus (founded on February 6, 1974).

I am not the founder of the Friends of Ireland.

This excerpt from my Memoirs explains the distinctions between the Irish National Caucus, the Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs, and  Friends of Ireland— http://www.irishnationalcaucus.org/explanation-of-  the-historical-origins-of-the-formation-of-the-ad-hoc-congressional-committee-for-irish-affairs-friends-of-ireland-and-the-congressional-friends-of-irish-national-caucus/

With the Tories’ new Brexit negotiator David Frost adopting what some see as a wrecking-ball approach, European frustration with an increasingly intransigent UK is being shared by Dublin

Aiden Corkery. Sunday Business Post. Dublin. Sunday, March 7, 2021


Two short months ago, Brandon Lewis appeared as a guest on BBC Radio Ulster with a positive New Year’s message.

Despite the Northern Ireland protocol being implemented on January 1, Britain’s Secretary of State insisted that any talk of there now being a border in the Irish Sea was misleading and that goods were flowing freely between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“I think people will see, as things settle down, that things will flow as they did in 2020,” he said.

On Friday, Lewis struck a markedly different tone in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph. From his discussions with Northern Irish businesses, it was increasingly clear that steps needed to be taken now to avoid “significant” and immediate disruption to everyday life in the North, he wrote.

“These are serious issues, like the availability and cost of products in Northern Ireland supermarkets and the ability of people of Northern Ireland to receive online deliveries, which have become so crucial to us all during the pandemic,” he added.

So serious had the situation become, in London’s view, that it had left the British government with no option but to unilaterally announce that it was extending the grace period for checks on agri-food products entering the North to October 1, far beyond the deadline previously agreed with the EU of April 1.

The government also signaled that it would be announcing similar extensions to the requirement for customs declarations on parcels traveling to the North, as well as an extension of the waiver on goods with soil attached, such as plants, seeds, bulbs, vegetables, and agricultural machinery.

For Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission, who leads the EU’s negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol, the announcement was a serious affront.

The experienced Slovak had been lobbying EU member states and influential MEPs to agree to some sort of relaxation of the onerous additional checks that were soon to be applied to goods crossing the Irish Sea.

Many were dubious. Britain has been regarded as less than enthusiastic in meeting all of its requirements under the Northern Ireland protocol, such as giving EU customs officials access to its IT systems for Belfast and Larne ports and hiring veterinary staff to sign export health certificates for animal products.

Over the course of countless phone calls, sources say Šefčovič had succeeded in assuring an often skeptical audience that the British could be trusted to do what was required. “They were on board,” a Commission source told the Business Post.

It was even suggested that had London not acted so hastily, it would have got Brussels to agree to much of the leeway it was looking for on the protocol.

“It’s being seen as a big two fingers [i.e. the Middle Finger] to the EU. Now the parliament and member states are up in arms and want us to go ahead with legal action. The goodwill is gone,” the source added.

This frustration with London is also shared in Dublin. Just like Šefčovič, Simon Coveney, the Foreign Affairs Minister, and Irish diplomats had been attempting to reassure their counterparts that extensions should be given.

Given that the mood music coming from Brussels was positive, many are now asking why Britain would antagonize the EU and Ireland so spectacularly and sully its own reputation by going it alone.

And some are blaming David Frost, Britain’s former chief Brexit negotiator, who was recently parachuted into the House of Lords so that he could take up a position as a cabinet minister in charge of implementing the EU-UK trade deal.

The change in atmosphere since Frost’s appointment has been stark. While his predecessor in the role, Michael Gove, was a fervent Brexiteer, he was also considered a pragmatist who had struck up a warm working relationship with Šefčovič.

The contrast in the two men‘s approaches is manifested in how the change in British policy was announced before Frost had even picked up the phone to Šefčovič for the first time in his new role. This was not, it is being privately suggested, the opening gambit of someone intent on a diplomatic approach.

Some in Brussels and Dublin see a repeat of the wrecking-ball approach adopted by Britain when Frost led the Brexit talks last autumn, during which Britain also threatened to break international law with its Internal Market Bill.

Rather than announce a shared breakthrough with Brussels, the suspicion is that the British decided to claim the victory for itself while being lauded by the Tory press for standing up to Brussels, while also easing unionist concerns in the North.

Neale Richmond, Fine Gael’s spokesman on European Affairs, said it was easy to recognize Frost’s approach.

“If you look back at Frost’s track record through September, October, November, it’s kind of a carbon copy of the chaos theory, blow-it-up approach,” he said.

While businesses in the North are currently relieved that the ratcheting-up of customs checks has been averted past April 1, Richmond said the medium and long-term consequences will be far more damaging.

Many years of tough negotiations are due to take place between the EU and UK but the people of Northern Ireland could be caught in the crossfire, he said.

London, naturally, insists that the EU and Ireland’s take on what happened last week is wrong. Sources have told the Business Post that it had been doing its best to follow the terms of the protocol, including doubling the number of veterinarians to complete export health certificates.

Suggestions that a deal was close to being agreed with the EU were far from accurate, they added, leaving the UK being left with no choice but to unilaterally announce an extension of the grace period on Wednesday so that Northern Irish businesses and British exporters would have time to prepare.

The British also point to the tensions that were building among the unionist community, which had ramped up significantly in the wake of the EU‘s brief invoking of Article 16 last month in a bid to block Covid-19 vaccine exports.

Taking action now to ease unionist concerns was important before they threatened to spiral out of control, the British have insisted, something which could have had very real consequences for next year’s Assembly elections in Northern Ireland as well as the vote to continue with the protocol in 2024.

Potentially damaging

Some in the Commission are doubtful about whether the parliament would take such a potentially damaging step as to vote down the Brexit deal, given how long and torturous its negotiation was and how costly it would be for both sides if it fell apart.

There is a sense, however, that the EU is determined to push ahead with taking legal action against Britain, with the expectation that this could happen as soon as this week. “We’re not going to sit on this for ages,” the Commission source said.

As part of this process, the EU will send a letter of formal notice to Britain outlining how it believes it has breached the protocol. The British will be given two months to act – if the EU is unhappy with its response, it will issue London with a “reasoned opinion” as to why it believes it has broken the law and will give it a further two months to rectify the situation.

If Britain still hasn‘t made amends by this point, the Commission will almost certainly refer the matter to the European Court of Justice, which has the power to impose a substantial fine on London.

Should Britain ignore the court‘s ruling, the matter can be passed to an arbitration panel as outlined under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the EU and UK in 2019. It can also impose fines or ultimately allow the EU to impose tariffs on British imports, a nightmarish scenario for Ireland which still trades a significant amount of goods with the UK.

Although the Irish government would still like to see this latest resolved through dialogue, there is a sense of resignation that legal proceedings are now inevitable given the EU‘s deep frustration with Boris Johnson’s government.

With both the EU and UK showing no sides of stepping back, the Irish know they will have to get firmly behind Brussels.

“We are like the child of a divorce here, but ultimately Ireland can‘t be seen to be offside with the EU,” a government source said.

The pressure is also being increased on Britain from across the Atlantic, with Joe Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterating his warning that nothing should be done to undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

The sentiment is shared on nearby Capitol Hill. On the same night, Brendan Boyle, the Irish-American congressman, told BBC’s Newsnight that as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, he would not rubber-stamp any future trade deal with UK that threatened the peace process.

Boyle is a leading member of the Friends of Ireland caucus, which is made up of members of the US senate and house of representatives. The founder and president of the caucus, Fr Sean McManus, was clear in his view that Britain should not think it can renege on its commitments.

“It’s time the British government realized the empire no longer exists and they can not keep being perfidious Albion, reneging on and retreating from agreements as they have done historically,” he told the Business Post.

Not only has President Biden put the British government on notice, but Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and Richard Neal, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, have also done so.

Fr McManus added that in the wake of the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, the American public, in general, had become more hostile to the sort of English nationalism espoused by Boris Johnson.

“People are beginning to understand right-wing nationalism because they’ve seen it happen here with Trump,” he told the Business Post. “They’re very aware that Brexit is all about English nationalism.”