‘Don’t touch this’ sounds like an instruction to punters in a pole dancing club, but it is also advice to Boris Johnson from the Belgian PM, Alexander De Croo.
Responding to continued speculation that British ministers are preparing unilateral measures to rescind parts of the Protocol, the Belgian prime minister said the EU’s message was ‘quite clear.’
‘Don’t touch this, this is something we agreed on,’ he added.
Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, also gave Johnson a straightforward rebuke: ‘No one should unilaterally scrap or break or in any way change the arrangement we agreed on together,’ he said.
But talk that draft legislation is set to be published as early as next week is now incessant.
‘UK considers plan to scrap parts of the NI Protocol’ reports the BBC.
‘Liz Truss “preparing to scrap parts of Northern Ireland protocol,”’ says The Guardian.
Yet despite Prince Charles donning the ceremonial garb of a rear-admiral to deliver the Queen’s Speech yesterday, the much-trailed reference to a specific Bill was left at the quayside.
There are a couple of obvious questions.
First: are ministers bluffing?
There is said to be cabinet divisions over the approach to legislating to abandon parts of the Protocol (presumably binning off checks on goods that are not destined for southern Ireland/the EU) with Liz Truss playing ‘bad cop’ and pushing for action.
The Times has an unnamed government source decrying her for ‘leadership feather fluttering’ in a bid to please the Tory Right ahead of a potential leadership election. (Amusingly, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole described Truss on Twitter as a ‘shallow Instagram Thatcherite’).
On the other side of the equation is Chancellor Rishi Sunak, (rightly) terrified of the effects that retaliatory EU measures would have on the British economy as we hover above a recession.
Bloomberg reported today that the EU ‘would likely move quickly to launch infringement procedures’ – which might even include suspending the whole Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – ‘if Boris Johnson’s government puts forward legislation to revoke its commitments…’
Meanwhile, Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary – and one-time critic of the Good Friday Agreement – is keen (sensibly) to let bilateral talks with the EU continue in the hope of finding compromise.
I would not bet against proposals emerging, but that is an entirely different proposition from them ever making it onto the statute book.
It is clear from the reaction even from sections of the Conservative party that such a Bill would receive a torrid time in its passage through the House of Commons.
The Tory Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, gave the idea short shrift, tweeting:
‘Not this sabre rattling again! Worth noting: a) we did the “negotiations” this is about amends; b) inflation up, recession on horizon & we think now a good time for a trade war with our nearest neighbours? c) no honourable country should act unilaterally within an agreement.’
Still, getting legislation through the Commons would be akin to a summer breeze compared to the Arctic chill the proposals would get in the Lords.
The government could, of course, invoke the Parliament Act and force a Bill through, but it will not.
This is all theatre. Pantomime, to be more accurate.
A protracted row with the big, bad EU plays well domestically, the theory goes, especially in the long run-up to a general election in spring 2024.
But there is something more pressing.
There is existential panic in the Downing Street bunker about the Sue Gray report into ‘partygate’ and the potential implications for Boris Johnson’s tenure in Number 10 if he faces serious criticism.
So, a useful short-term distraction as well.
If that is the shallow politics, what, then, is the grown-up excuse for going down this particular road?
Ministers argue that the Protocol is undermining the delicate balance of relationships that underpin the Good Friday Agreement settlement.
The assembly and executive remain mothballed. As are the north-south bodies, while the east-west relationship is damaged (so Unionists insist) by the precipitous decline in trade, caused, they argue, by the pernicious Protocol.
Of course, the first and second points are simply down to the DUP withdrawing its support, still thinking it lives in the glory days of vetoing anything it doesn’t like.
While the third point about trade is a direct consequence of Brexit, for which they campaigned with gusto, despite repeated warnings about problems with the management of the border afterwards.
The argument, then, is that the Protocol as it stands is hindering a return to the delicate equilibrium at Stormont, imperilling the Good Friday Agreement.
This explanation is crafty because of growing pressure from the US, enthusiastic custodians of the agreement.
The Irish Times reports today that congressman Bill Keating, chairman of the foreign affairs subcommittee on Europe, and congressman Brendan Boyle, co-chair of the congressional EU Caucus in the House of Representatives, have written a joint-letter to Liz Truss.
They urged her to ‘uphold your end of the deal [over the Protocol] and act in good faith,’ and to remain ‘within the parameters of international law,’ to maintain peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
Of course, the Protocol row is also about mounting a helicopter rescue mission for Jeffrey Donaldson.
He has proven utterly incapable of facing down hardliners in his own party and across Loyalism more generally, who simply want the Protocol scrapped, not reformed.
He is stranded and cannot resile from an extreme position, with mainstream Unionism becoming ‘Brysonised’ around him over the past couple of years and dragged to the right.
Galling, as Donaldson knows better, and was telling us (correctly) in early 2020 that the Protocol offered ‘the best of both worlds,’ with continued access to the EU and British markets.
With EU leaders pushing back against talk of unilateral action, and with US dissatisfaction rising, British ministers should take a big gulp of air before they make their next move.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable ad How it Will Come About’