The UK’s deportation crisis alongside the contentious customs legislation has threatened to derail European stability. Meanwhile, Russia recoups in Ukraine. Now many believe that Europe could be heading toward a lethal trade war. How did it get so much worse?
Britain cannot catch a break, can it! I honestly thought Brexit would be the highlight in Europe for decades to follow. Then, Russia invaded Ukraine, and my perspective shifted. The European leaders joined forces to deter Putin, and I was sure this was a lasting commitment. Even as the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson grappled with the ‘Partygate’ scandal, I was glad that Europe was finally embracing unity again – leaving behind the bittersweet Brexit fiasco. Yet the desperate attempts by the Tory regime – or rather Mr. Johnson and his intimate cohort – to regain its lost shining in England are unfortunately sounding the knell for European harmony.
Mr. Johnson barely survived the confidence vote a fortnight ago. However, the vote exposed his vulnerable position as a leader as 148 Conservative lawmakers (roughly 41%) rebelled against him on the secret ballot. The position of desperation is ostensibly out in the open as Mr. Johnson races to appeal to his avid supporters in the echelons of the Conservative party vis-à-vis the rightist Brexiteers. But how exactly? Apparently, via targeting the totemic conservative issues – the immigration policy and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Rwandan Asylum Plan
The overhyped political drama apropos of transporting British asylum seekers to Rwanda – a former German colony in East Africa – is all but a ruse by the Tory loyalists. Sure, the illegal migrants risked their lives crossing the English Channel. But the policy to settle imperiled migrants in a remote African settlement is a far cry from the touted well-being of refugees. The policy got denounced by human rights groups, charities, religious leaders, and the international press. Even the British royalty couldn’t condone the inhumane and unjust policy that clearly breached the international refugee agreements. Ms. Yvette Cooper – the Labour Party’s Shadow Home Secretary – stated: “This is not, and never has been, a serious policy.” I admit, it is not! Until recently as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered the grounding of the flight bound to Rwanda at the last gasp. Ms. Priti Patel – the Conservative Home Secretary – termed the ECHR ruling as “Scandalous” and vowed to schedule another flight by protesting: “We will not accept that we have no right to our borders.” What followed was a chorus of grievances concerning European intervention in British law. Conservatives railed about exiting the European Human Rights Pact. And even Mr. Johnson alluded to the possibility of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The current pushback against the European Convention eerily hearkens back to the days leading to the referendum. However, this uncanny resemblance with the Brexit outcry in 2016 is not coincidental. The Conservatives need a facade to veil the fragile foundation exposed by the vote of confidence. By invoking memories of Brexit, Mr. Johnson hopes to muster confidence in his leadership and redress his tarnished image. Why else would he threaten to leave the Convention, a political milestone of Winston Churchill that even he once endorsed: “Keep the European Convention; it is a fine thing. Get out of the European Union (EU),” he said during the referendum campaign back in 2016. It is nothing but a tactic to maintain the illusion of strength as, despite threatening to leave the ECHR, any actual policy action would require several months of deliberations. Not to mention amendments to Scottish, Welsh, and Irish legislation to detach from the Convention completely. While the ECHR is unrelated to the EU, a similar (but graver) situation is unraveling in Northern Ireland – a combined effect could destabilize the European concord.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Legislation
The Brexit custom rules have weighed heavily in the political arena – especially between England and Northern Ireland. In order to preserve the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – a covenant that ended decades of sectarian violence between the Nationalists and the Unionists – the Northern Ireland Protocol was inducted into the Brexit deal. Customs checks got placed in the Irish Sea on goods entering Northern Ireland from the mainland UK. The arrangement was designed to avoid fencing a hard border between the North – a British constituent province – and the Republic of Ireland – a member of the EU. The Unionists – led by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – have contended the protocol was the first step toward alienation from Great Britain. Discussions between the British government and the European Commission rambled on to discuss ease of restrictions – only to end at an impasse. The European Commission refused to make changes to the protocol while British lawmakers railed against the inflexibility of the bloc. It could have continued indefinitely. However, the May elections in Northern Ireland unprecedentedly shifted the power dynamics.
Sinn Féin (the Democratic Socialist Party) – a Nationalist counterpart to Unionists – trumped the DUP, becoming the largest party in the Assembly – the first time ever in the centurial existence of Northern Ireland. The power-sharing agreement, enshrined in the GFA, would still delegate equal powers to both ministers nominated by respective parties. However, an aberration stands as, while the DUP acknowledges defeat in the elections, the party has refused to designate a Deputy First Minister – a requisite counterpart to Sinn Féin’s First Minister – until its concerns regarding the protocol get duly addressed. Hence, the political paralysis in Northern Ireland could reignite violence between the British loyalists and the Irish nationalists if the Assembly fails to convene soon. Thus, Mr. Johnson is admittedly in a political limbo, racing against the clock to avoid another political failure. Though this time, his solution seems more of a colossal failure in the long run.
By all accounts, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIP Bill) tabled last week is a menacing legislation. Even 52 of the 90 elected lawmakers in Northern Ireland’s Parliament have rebuffed it as a “reckless” new protocol. The bill envisions a bifurcated trade route between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland. According to the published document, Mr. Johnson envisages trade operation on two lanes: the green lane for trade with Northern Ireland; the red lane for goods intended for the Irish Republic (and the rest of the bloc). By definition, goods on the green lane would undergo no checks and follow British standards, while cargoes via the red lane would be subject to regular EU customs and regulations. Furthermore, the contentious legislation conveniently allows the British government the authority to set fiscal policies in Northern Ireland. The Tory regime insists on the “Doctrine of necessity” to breach an international agreement unilaterally. However, the political deadlock in Northern Ireland would not exactly resolve since the legislation would typically take a year to enact. On the contrary, the European landscape could bristle shortly if the EU retaliates.
The NIP bill proposes an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) relating to settlements of trade disputes. Combined with the recent threat to exit the ECHR, the UK is basically saying: We will disregard the international law to save face in domestic politics. And to add insult to injury, we also refuse to accept your authority in mutual trade disputes and human rights violations – all in the name of supposed national autonomy and peace. Naturally, neither the Democratic Unionists nor the EU is buying the absurd excuse. The DUP lawmakers clarified that they will “wait to see how the bill gets implemented before deciding on a power-sharing government.” Even forgoing the time needed to enact the bill, it is exceedingly unlikely that the legislation would survive in the House that nearly voted Mr. Johnson out of office. In the meantime, a trade war with the EU seems on cards.
A Prospective Trade War in Europe
Brussels recently alluded to potential retaliation as the European Commission recommenced legal proceedings against the UK – frozen during talks over the protocol since 2021. If the British government fails to respond within two months, the EU could drag the UK to the ECJ. “The bleeding mistrust in EU capitals,” according to an architect of the Northern Ireland Protocol, is sharply raising the specter of a trade war between the EU and Great Britain. While the infringement proceedings of the ECJ could take months, in the short term, the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) – the deal ensuring tariff-free and quota-free trade between Britain and the European bloc – is seriously threatened. In a hypothetical scenario, the EU could unilaterally scrape the whole (or certain parts) of the TCA to impose tariffs on British goods. The EU could further inflict considerable damage by restricting European waters to the UK – debilitating the lucrative fishing industry. Even the UK could respond by pinching trade with the EU and closing English markets to European businesses. Consequently, trade barriers and economic hostilities would inevitably catapult the cost of living in Europe – especially during a period when inflation is already touching a multi-decade high; a global recession is nearing. Ultimately, the fallout would significantly destabilize the European economies and throw Britain into economic isolation.
The drama in Westminster has invited the ire of the Biden administration as a fracture in the Western alliance would ultimately bolster the Russian offensive. Record-high inflation has already made political decisions regarding Russian economic exclusion extremely tricky. A trade war would ineluctably make Europe more divided and ill-prepared to part from Russian energy supplies. Hence, Brussels is tapering its response to the UK plausibly to safeguard the European unison. Regardless, the tensions would remain high as Mr. Johnson and Company would likely continue to take a hardline approach to please the Brexiteers and deflect criticism over their own failure and notoriety – especially after the crushing defeat in recent by-elections. Ultimately, a lack of resolve in the following months would upend Britain’s role in international law, spook faith in the European bloc, and fissure the underlying trust that would ultimately favor the Russian rhetoric.
[Photo by 10 Downing Street]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Rizvi has written extensively on foreign policy, historical crises and economic decision making of Europe and the US.