Remember Brexit?

So much has happened this past week in Brexit.

Although the world has remained focused on the global pandemic, the ongoing implications of Brexit have returned with a vengeance this week. The United Kingdom announced it would unilaterally extend the deadline for businesses trading food across the Irish Sea to adjust to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement’s (TCA) requirements (effectively delaying checks for such imports). The European Parliament paused its vote on the TCA, whose provisional approval runs out at the end of April, with only two plenaries left for the vote before then. And a unionist group that includes loyalist paramilitaries has temporarily withdrawn its support for the Good Friday Agreement due to concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol (successor to the doomed backstop).
Let’s unpack these developments one by one.  
The UK’s Brexit Blues
The most recent unilateral abrogation of the Northern Ireland Protocol comes on the heels of last year’s (thankfully withdrawn) Integrated Market Bill, which violated the Withdrawal Agreement. Adding them up, one may begin to come to the conclusion that Boris Johnson’s government does not plan on following the rules or implementing the TCA as it was designed—an agreement they signed just three months ago. Indeed, the requirements of the Protocol and the shape of the EU-UK relationship laid out in the TCA were always going to create serious issues, partly owing to their mismached aims. However, the government has also shown continued unwillingness to implement a legally binding agreement and eagerness to blame the European Union for arrangements it agreed to. These are clear attempts to divert attention from or overshadow its lack of competence for the implementation of the TCA (if it ever intended to do so in the first place) and the extreme positions taken by some members of the cabinet on the shape of Brexit.   
Of course, from the British perspective, the European Union fired first: in January, it unilaterally—albeit briefly—invoked an emergency provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol that would reinstate border checks for vaccines. Though it backtracked within hours when it realized the implications of the move, the Commission broke the taboo and became the first side to invoke the provision, thereby losing credibility in its desire to defend the Good Friday Agreement at all costs. It also gave London a perfect opportunity to blame the European Union and an argument (spurious as it may be) to abrogate the agreement whenever it would find it inconvenient. 
Personnel changes have also made a difference. Lord David Frost, former Brexit negotiator, has succeeded Michael Gove as overseer of EU-UK relations; while he shares the latter’s anti-EU stance, he does not have his political deftness. Frost seems intent on taking advantage of the European Union’s short-lived yet damaging mistake around vaccine export bans and the Protocol (see below in EU section). He believes Brussels must compromise (showcase a “different spirit,” in his words) and that blaming the European Union is a much more rewarding position politically than accepting responsibility for implementing the United Kingdom’s legally binding obligations.
Thankfully for the UK government, the vaccine rollout has been enough of a success that it has afforded it not only temporary reprieve from public pressure but also an uptick in popularity. The budget cliff-edge caused by the coronavirus crisis also provides cover for Brexit’s economic hit, though Chancellor Rishi Sunak will have to reckon with longer-term challenges to competitiveness on the path to recovery.
And, luckily for Boris Johnson, there seems to be no unified opposition voice to the government’s moves. Labour leader Keir Starmer has focused his attacks on budget plans but avoided any frontal rebuke of the prime minister on Brexit issues. The Labour Party has not yet found its message on the TCA and seems intent on steering clear of that debate, therefore leaving the field wide open for the government to shape the narrative. Furthermore, the rather successful vaccine rollout makes it increasingly difficult to take shots at the government’s failures on the broader fight against Covid-19.
A Befuddled Brussels
Brussels also appears to have come to the conclusion that London never intended to negotiate in good faith. There is little goodwill left between the two sides. The elevation of David Frost to the EU-UK Joint Committee, which oversees the implementation of the withdrawal deal, further fuels the view that Johnson does not seek smooth relations. And, from the European perspective, the brief suspension of the Northern Ireland Protocol was an honest mistake: given the vaccine rollout across Europe, this decision can easily be chalked up to the Commission’s scrambling on the health crisis rather than malicious intent toward London.
But with the Commission’s reputation dented, another EU actor has entered the fray with its legitimacy intact and its powder dry. The European Parliament, which has still not officially ratified the TCA, refused to set a date for this vote after the UK decision to extend the grace period on customs checks. Though relevant actors in the Parliament have rhetorically supported flexibility and a pragmatic approach to Northern Ireland, they have no reason to concede to UK demands and have been put off by this unilateral move. A no-deal cliff at the end of April is in no one’s interest, but MEPs have room to show their discontent and could well play hardball with the United Kingdom in the coming weeks. To start, they can hold hearings and get testimony from the relevant players and ensure the deal is implemented in letter and in spirit.
Northern Ireland Caught in Between
Northern Ireland remains the Gordian knot in the divorce settlement. The protections afforded to the region in the Protocol are incompatible with a more distant trade relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union (as laid out in the TCA), and these cracks are starting to show. The Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and its allies have called for the annulment of the Protocol but from the European perspective, there is no way around such an arrangement to protect the integrity of the single market—unless the United Kingdom wants a closer relationship. (The DUP backed Brexit and the previous Conservative government’s negotiations.) This also seems to be falling on deaf ears in London.
Worryingly, community tensions that were simmering have now bubbled to the surface. In February, customs check points were closed after law enforcement received warnings that they could be attacked. Loyalist (unionist) paramilitary groups have temporarily suspended their support to the Good Friday Agreement because of trade disruptions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Were the checks to be moved to the island of Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, other threats of violence would likely come from Republican paramilitary groups (not to mention it would be an infringement to the Good Friday Agreement).
When the United Kingdom signed the TCA, it established a very tight implementation timeline that, as has become evident, it could not meet. It must now extend the transition period (by agreement or unilaterally) it fought hard to keep short. The absurdity of the situation would be on full display were it not for the cover of the pandemic and an opposition that is perennially divided on the subject.
The acrimony shows no sign of abating in the next few weeks. The options are to tone down the rhetoric (no sign of this from Frost), let things go to a no-deal scenario (no reason for this after the hard-fought TCA was inked), or take things to the last minute and agree a solution in a way that allows both sides to save face after a painful game of chicken. Given the last few years’ experience, the last option may be the most likely. And at a time when both the United Kingdom and the European Union are dealing with high numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths, the lack of honesty and cooperative spirit harms both sides.
Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program