There is a strong air around the latest Brexit saga twist that many people – in London, Brussels and Dublin – are waiting for Boris Johnson to leave the stage.
here is no doubt that the UK’s zaniest prime minister in living memory is in his final days. But there is no telling how swift his departure will be, though all eyes will be on the two by-elections tomorrow week.
Don’t bet the house on it, but he’s still odds to make it to the summer recess later next month. Then he’ll stumble on to the conference season in the autumn when hardy could well come to hardy.
In the meantime, another slow bicycle race is tottering to the starting line on mainland Europe. We have noted in this slot before that Mr Johnson has burned up whatever kudos the UK had gleaned over its engagement with Ukraine. The UK prime minister’s efforts to brush off his proposals to jettison chunks of Northern Ireland’s special trade status as “not a big deal”, were shot down in flames by the strong reaction in EU national capitals. German chancellor Olaf Scholz said the EU has its “entire toolbox at its disposal” – a clear nod to eventual trade sanctions.
The German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, of the Green Party, was determined that the EU “cannot accept” the unilateral moves by the British government, adopted for its “own motives”. Italy’s Europe minister Enzo Amendola said the UK was “violating international legal obligations”.
In the Dáil, as he basked in a brief display of opposition support from Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Labour’s Ivana Bacik, the Taoiseach had every confidence the EU will stand solidly with Ireland, north and south.
But Micheál Martin was equally confident there would be no sudden moves by Brussels making things worse any time soon.
“We have had extensive contacts with the European Union in advance of this decision. It will remain resolute, firm and measured in terms of its response to the United Kingdom government’s decisions in this regard,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil.
As reported yesterday, the plans are there – including a likely “hit list of products” which would inflict maximum political pain on an errant London government. But yesterday and today the EU is heavily in political stock-taking mode.
The first Brussels’ reaction that happened on Monday was that European Commission lead Brexit negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, reiterated there will be no renegotiation of the basics of the Northern Ireland Protocol, signed off by Mr Johnson in 2019 and 2020, and then ratified by the London parliament.
The EU is expected to do three things today. It will certainly re-launch legal procedures it opened against the UK in March 2021 but paused a few months later. There were also signs new procedures could be opened today which could raise the prospect of eventual EU Court fines against London.
But in a mix of carrot and stick, it is also likely that EU Commission proposals on softening how the protocol is applied will be elaborated on in more detail. These were first published last October and amount to reducing checks and paperwork on British goods going into the North.
These will probably be a further boon to Northern Ireland business. They should put more pressure on the Johnson government than the threats of EU law and fines which would play to his Europhobic base.
There is a sense of dread in Ireland about the prospects of us becoming the meat in the sandwich. But cling to one bit of cold comfort: Britain can ill afford a trade war. Last week, the OECD predicted it would perform the worst of any G20 country except Russia over the next year. More dismal economic figures landed on Monday hours before London unveiled its latest try-on.