tl;dr – The UK’s Command Paper on the Northern Ireland Protocol

Simon Usherwood |

The publication on 21 July of the UK government’s Command Paper came just before the end of the Parliamentary session. Flagged for several weeks, it was presented as the culmination of a long push to secure changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Undoubtedly, the Paper does cap the numerous public statements of Lord Frost, Brandon Lewis, Boris Johnson and others in government, not least in saying that a root-and-branch reformulation of the entire text is needed, rather than some tweaking at the edges.

But it is another aspect of culmination that is more striking: the lack of credibility behind the proposals advanced.

Put briefly, the UK’s position appears to be one of “we didn’t mean to sign the Protocol, so let’s change it”, an approach that has no grounds in either international law or basic political common sense.

The international law aspect is something I’ve covered already, but to recap the basics: if you freely sign a treaty, you’re bound to stick to it, unless there’s some very fundamental change of circumstances. And no, disliking it isn’t enough.

The political angle is one that’s not too complex to unpack either.

In any potential negotiation, you need to know what your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (or BATNA, for acronym fans) is. As long as you can get a better outcome by negotiating than by not negotiating, then you should negotiate and agree.

Note that this is purely relative: the negotiated outcome might be poor, but it just needs to be less poor than not agreeing. And so it is for Brexit.

The EU might not like the Protocol much, but it was better than any other option on the table, or walking away from the table altogether.

As such, the UK’s proposal to renegotiate the Protocol needs to be a clear improvement on the status quo.

And yet, the Command Paper barely deals with the EU’s needs (beyond Single Market integrity), which means the case has not been made to even start on this, so the Commission’s rejection of renegotiation is less than surprising.

Since the UK knows all this, the question has to be why bother pursuing a route that isn’t going to lead anywhere good? Playing with invocations of Article 16 (which isn’t what the UK government thinks it is, but that’s a different point) can only result in numerous legal and trade retaliations from the EU, and a big telling-off by the US, only to leave the UK with the original problem still in place, so it’s not really going to work.

As with so much of the Brexit process, this isn’t really about the external aspect, but the internal one. The deep allergy of Number 10 to signing up to anything that gives a formal role to the EU in UK affairs is driven by the pressures of backbenchers, regardless of the views of public opinion, businesses or anyone else.

Indeed, the most telling sentence in the entire Command Paper is from para 14:

Nevertheless, the revised Protocol delivered the fundamental requirement of enabling the UK as a whole to leave the EU in a genuine and meaningful way

British policy is thus about what mustn’t happen, rather than what must; a strategy that has failed repeatedly since 2016.

The hope is still, clearly, that someone will come up with a cunning wheeze to square the numerous circles, so all that’s needed – and fortunately all that’s possible – is to keep things from settling into any kind of regularity, so that no one gets too comfortable.

I’ve set out some further thoughts on the Command Paper in this thread, but the key is that this isn’t any kind of unblocking process, but rather a holding pattern:

As a bit of a side-note, I’ll also mention that the DUP made various positive noises about the proposals in the Command Paper, largely because they talk to the same people.

The DUP’s seven tests from last week did highlight the problems of the current Protocol, but also of all the other options out there. Those that do meet the DUP’s requirements don’t work for either the EU or Number 10.

This suggests that we are still a very long way from any kind of stable equilibrium on Northern Ireland.