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When the UK officially left the European Union, Northern Ireland was significantly left behind.
The country has effectively remained part of the EU’s single goods market, a concept that allows goods to move freely between member states. This condition was called the Northern Ireland Protocol.
This week, the UK government announced a proposal to rework part of the deal it struck with the EU over Brexit, which an EU official called “illegal”.
It sparked an international trade dispute between the UK and the EU and has threatened to disrupt the relative peace in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was struck in 1998.
“When we look at people’s concerns about protocol, above all, regardless of where they come from, their concern is political stability in Northern Ireland,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University of Belfast, at NPR.
“I think that’s why a majority of people are very keen on seeing the UK and the EU find their way back to the negotiating table fairly soon.”
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
When Brexit came into force, it meant the Republic of Ireland remained in the EU while Northern Ireland left the bloc.
Instead of creating a land border on the island of Ireland, officials agreed to allow Northern Ireland to effectively remain in the EU’s single market, an agreement known as the Ireland Protocol North.
This meant that goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales had to meet EU standards and were subject to other single market rules.
Britain has repeatedly delayed implementing post-Brexit import controls, Reuters reported.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, which narrowly survived a recent vote of no confidence, is now driving a new bill that would override parts of the protocol.
New UK government bill would drastically change protocol
The Johnson government’s proposal would allow goods to enter Northern Ireland under UK or EU rules. It aims to reduce costs and paperwork for businesses in the UK.
Finally, disputes that are currently resolved by the European Court of Justice would instead be subject to independent arbitration under the proposal.
“This is a sensible and practical solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement.
This decision drew condemnation from the EU and elsewhere
“Let’s call a spade a spade: it’s illegal,” said Maroš Šefčovič, European Union Vice-President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight, on Wednesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Truss and discussed the “need to continue negotiations with the EU to find solutions” regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The British proposal also reignited fears of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a possibility the protocol explicitly aimed to avoid in order to maintain relative peace between the two countries.
Decades of violence between nationalists and trade unionists known as The Troubles largely ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
But Hayward said she heard concerns about the return of a hard border as she researched the area during Brexit withdrawal negotiations from 2017.
“It wasn’t so much the issue of customs checks that people were concerned about,” she said. “It immediately brought up those memories of people having The Troubles and blocked roads and army checkpoints.”
EU officials take legal action in response to proposal
In response to the recent proposal, the European Commission announced on Wednesday that it was launching infringement proceedings against the United Kingdom for breaching the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The complaints include accusations that the UK is understaffed at border checkpoints in Northern Ireland and is not carrying out required checks. In addition, the commission said the UK had failed to provide certain trade data related to Northern Ireland.
The commission also relaunched another infringement procedure that it had first filed in 2021 “in particular concerning certification requirements for the circulation of agri-food products”.
A Johnson spokesman said the government was “disappointed” with the commission’s legal action.
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