Let’s try to keep the bright side out and note that political leaders talk about trade wars far more than they ever act upon them.
ut the dark side of that one is that trade wars do happen – and when they do, they hit jobs and incomes, damaging the many and helping few.
So – following the latest twist in this Brexit six-year saga and Boris Johnson’s upping the stakes – how real and imminent is a threatened UK-EU Brexit trade war? And how would Ireland, north and south, be affected?
The answer to the second question is sadly rather easy: it would be carnage. So, let’s revert to the less apocalyptic grounds of the first question and explore how likely an EU-UK trade war really is.
Sometimes, it is important to revert to first principles about this Brexit rigmarole.
Mr Johnson’s government is now chafing at having a customs border within the four UK entities, and border checks between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales.
He signed up twice to this arrangement, publicly extolled it, and got his party MPs to ratify it in parliament in late December 2020.
Now he argues the deal is causing political paralysis in Northern Ireland, undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace.
This saps energy – but we must also recall that he dismissed all such talk during the 2016 Brexit referendum, claiming it was a small detail.
Mr Johnson’s new bill, presented yesterday – and which is likely to take many months to be voted through the British parliament – is on one level something the UK government hopes it can use as leverage to push the EU to change the fundamental deal.
But EU chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic has again repeated the Brussels’ view that administrative details remain up for grabs – but treaty text will not change.
Mr Johnson has formally said that London will unilaterally change the deal agreed, signed and ratified. So, what does the EU do now?
Well, Commissioner Sefcovic said the EU would as a first step revive legal cases it launched against the UK in spring 2021, when Britain decided to postpone some of the checks it was supposed to carry out in the Irish Sea. Those cases were frozen pending negotiations.
He also said the EU would consider new legal challenges to protect against the violation of the Brexit agreements.
We are now on the slippery slope where the EU could eventually retaliate against the UK by revoking parts of the Brexit agreement.
This included the zero-tariff arrangements for each side’s goods, or move to suspend the full agreement.
Encouragingly, such tough-guy action is unlikely in the short term.
But the Slovakian Commission vice-president sent a warning signal about the future of the Brexit agreement, saying Britain’s decision undermines the trust that is necessary for the accord to function properly.
The key question here is how far Brussels will go in negotiations with London in the coming months while this legislation is winding its way through the London parliament.
Happily, negotiations are not over yet. Mr Sefcovic said the EU would lay out proposals on possible compromises to address the British government’s concerns that would be possible within the current Northern Ireland Protocol.
And Mr Johnson said that the EU starting a trade war over the proposed law would be a “gross, gross overreaction”.
But London knows EU trade officials have a detailed list of likely “hit products” for some time.
Some of these have particular resonance to British political sensitivities – if hardy comes to hardy. Scotch whisky would loom large here.
There is a keen awareness of the six-out-of-10 Remain vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum north of the Clyde and memory that the 2014 Scottish independence vote was won by 10pc on the basis of all the UK remaining in the EU.