Are the EU and UK heading for a trade war?

EU
British and EU flags flutter outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain Image Credit: Reuters file

If there is one thing that is predictable with the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson it is the lack of clarity on Brexit.

It may be a matter of time before the Johnson government pulls the plug on the Brexit deal it negotiated with the European Union, saying that the Northern Ireland “protocol” isn’t working.

There are several sure signs this is about to happen.

Firstly negotiators from the UK, led by Lord David Frost, have been meeting with their European counterparts to try and reach some sort of a resolution over the protocol. In case you’ve been in hibernation for the past 22 months — well, there has been a pandemic — the Northern Ireland protocol is the arrangement Johnson came to with the EU over how to deal with the thorny subject of Northern Ireland.

For several years during those turgid Brexit negotiations so painfully worked on by former Prime Minister Theresa May, the sticking point was the land border between the British-governed province and the Republic of Ireland to the south. It was the only land border to be affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU after a marriage of 45 years. The big fear from all sides was that if Brexit was to result in the return of a “hard” border on the island of Ireland, there was every chance there would be a return to violence — the kind that resulted in some 3,600 deaths over 30 years of “The Troubles”.

Ultimately, May failed in her efforts to negotiate the Brexit deal — in large part because she had to rely on the support of 10 MPs from Northern Ireland who were stubbornly opposed to making any concession to Brussels that might weaken the link between their Unionist camp and England, Scotland and Wales across the Irish Sea.

Exit May and enter Johnson, who was so eager to get Brexit done, he agreed to place the customs border down that Irish Sea, putting Northern Ireland effectively into the EU customs zone, splitting it off from the rest of the UK. And no, he proudly said time and time again, the Northern Ireland protocol, as the new arrangement would be called, would not create any more paperwork or mean any really change. Wrong, and wrong again — and he knew it then and knows it now.

Northern Ireland is suffering because it is has been initially difficult to move goods across that Irish Sea customs line. Listen to any television or radio advertisement now for retailers in the UK and they will say in rushed voice or small print that delivery options do not apply to Northern Ireland. Who knows how Santa Claus will get around the red table come December 25!

For its part and recognising some of the difficulties the protocol has caused, the EU has offered to relax inspections on some 80 per cent of goods moving across the 20 kilometres channel that separates Northern Ireland from the island of Great Britain.

So with that kind of an offer on the table, why doesn’t the Johnson government talked its way into reaching a settlement to allow everyone to move on?

The answer is politics, plain and simple. And it is politics that will bring about the trade war, likely in the new year, methinks. Here’s why.

There is growing discontent in the UK over the rising cost of living and a shortage of goods on shelves and in the wider marketplace, The generic excuse that is used is that it’s a global supply chain issue and a driver shortage. In my world, that translates into not having enough foreign labour to harvest crops, serve meals, drive trucks and keep the economy ticking along. And Brexit is part and parcel of the supply chain. If it’s too much hassle to ship goods to the UK from the continent, those goods can be sold more easily — and trucked too — in the EU.

Recent polls have started to suggest that most Britons — 70 per cent in one poll in October — think they are worse off since leaving the EU. Those trade deals and new world order haven’t materialised. Or if they have, do little now. Welsh farmers say they livelihoods are now at risk because of a recent trade deal signed with New Zealand that will allow for the import of cheaper lamb. Whereas Brexit caused an immediate 5 per cent hit on the UK economy, a trade deal signed with Australia will only generate a 0.3 per rise in GDP over the next decade — hardly like for like.

And right now, the Johnson government is mired in political sleaze scandals that resulted in it badly handling the resignation of one MP.

Right now, COP26 is underway in Glasgow. That’s why, for example, the UK and France quickly patched up their nasty little fishing dispute just before the summit opened.

But as soon as the summit is over — and particularly if it not seen to be a success and if there’s widespread criticism, then expect an announcement that the UK will be giving notice that intends to walk away from the Northern Ireland protocol.

Already, the government in Dublin is making contingency plans for a trade way and has dusted off the blueprints it had in place in case a Brexit deal couldn’t be reached.

Yes a deal is there but Britannia may just not regard it.