Problem: the failure of the Northern Ireland protocol
The conflict is not new, London and Brussels have already fought bitterly over Northern Ireland during negotiations for a Brexit agreement in 2020. Johnson wanted a solution, mainly for internal reasons: they put themselves agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol.
The aim of the protocol between the EU and Great Britain was to avoid a hard external border of the EU on the island of Ireland and thus also to preserve peace in Northern Ireland.
It works like this: Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but since Brexit trade between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland has been treated as if the UK province was still part of the market unique to the EU. The Northern Ireland Protocol created a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea – with consequences for the UK economy.
Goods meant to pass from Britain to Northern Ireland have to go through customs – the effort has now become too much for many UK businesses. According to the “Manufacturing NI” association, which represents around 5,500 manufacturing companies in Northern Ireland, one in four British companies had already decided in 2021 to no longer supply Northern Ireland.
Northern Irish companies therefore often no longer obtain their supplies from the kingdom or have to pay a high price for them. While trade with the UK is in decline, trade with Ireland is booming as Northern Ireland has free access to the EU internal market.
Why is the conflict escalating now?
Of course, the Northern Ireland Protocol raises a number of practical issues. British politics likes to use the example of sandwiches, for which supermarket chains have to go through the same endless paperwork as if they were to sell the goods outside the UK. But the economic implications are just the tip of the iceberg.
It will probably be much more difficult to find a solution to the ideological questions. Boris Johnson campaigned for Brexit and promised the British people more prosperity and political autonomy. In the meantime, however, more and more people realize that Brexit is not a successful model from an economic point of view.
In October 2021, Richard Hughes, head of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), Britain’s watchdog, told the BBC that leaving the EU would reduce Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) by around 4% long-term. By comparison, UK GDP is thought to have fallen by 2% as a result of the pandemic.