Nearly a year and a half after the Brexit deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union, the status of Northern Ireland remains a thorn in the side of negotiators. Since the election victory of the nationalist Sinn Fein party in Northern Ireland, both sides have threatened to blow up the deal. Hence, the next round of negotiations has not yet begun.
What is this again?
Northern Ireland’s status has been a point of contention since the Brexit negotiations began. This is because Ireland has been part of the European Union since 1973, while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It seems easy to resolve this by dividing the region, but in 1998 it was agreed in the so-called Good Friday Agreement that there would be no solid border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
And this is where the shoe is now pinched. In the Brexit deal, it was agreed that Northern Ireland would receive special status. The country is not a member of the European Union, but is part of the European Customs Union. As a result, it must comply with European food standards and other regulations. This creates a lot of additional management for British supermarkets wanting to supply their Northern Ireland branches, which has already regularly resulted in empty shelves in Northern Ireland stores.
Was this not a topic of discussion before?
Yes, regularly. But now that the Nationalists won elections in Northern Ireland last week, it’s re-emerging. They advocate the reunification of Ireland and Northern Ireland, if necessary as members of the European Union. On the other hand, the second largest party wants Northern Ireland to remain British and refuses to enter the government as long as the special status remains. This makes everything more complicated.
In October, the European Union proposed removing customs controls on medicines and a number of foods, among other things, halving the total number of controls and reducing the number of food controls by 80 percent.
But British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is not happy with that. According to a statement issued on Tuesday, the plans would still see “daily products” disappear from the shelves, and imports of some meat would require “fifty administrative fields.”
How are things now?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this week that the Northern Ireland protocol was “untenable” under the current circumstances. On Thursday, Truss stressed that his country “will have no choice but to take action if the European Union is not flexible.” It could mean anything, but there is talk in the corridors that the UK will announce next week that it will be ignoring parts of the protocol.
The European Commission took the lead on Thursday, saying the EU would never accept such a decision. “It undermines confidence and jeopardizes the ultimate goal,” said European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. Sefkovic has previously shown he is not afraid to scrap the Brexit deal entirely, leaving the UK empty-handed.
What does this mean for negotiations?
Sometime in the coming weeks, negotiators on behalf of the European Union and the United Kingdom will meet again for another round of negotiations. It is already clear that these talks will also take place in a state-of-the-art style.
It remains to be seen who will be right in the end, but there’s a good chance this won’t be the last round yet. The problem of Northern Ireland will continue to fester for a long time to come. It remains to be seen whether a solution acceptable to both sides will be found.
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