The Troubles came to an end with the signing of the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement – GFA) on April 10th 1998. The agreement was signed between the British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in NI, with the United States acting as a third-party guarantor.
It is also worth noting that the US defence of the GFA is not a bipartisan issue, with both the Democrats and Republicans supporting the NI peace process, so the idea that Biden only supports peace in NI because he dislikes Britain is absurd as even the Trump administration was opposed to a hard border.
What went wrong?
It would be a stretch to say that the Irish border issues are just due to Brexit. The problem is not the UK leaving the EU; after all, some none-EU states still enjoy freedom of movement, but leaving the EU’s Single Market (which Brexiteers said we wouldn’t) is exacerbating the problem.
One of the major stipulations of the GFA was there would be no border on the island of Ireland. When both states were EU members, this was no issue. However, the UK’s decision to erect a hard border between itself and the EU meet that a border had to go somewhere and putting it across Ireland would violate the GFA.
In December 2021, the UK and EU signed an agreement that protected the GFA but did erect a hard border between NI and the rest of the UK. No state wants to partition itself, but this is the agreement that the UK agreed to.
Breaking international law
The recent controversy around the Northern Irish Protocol (NIP) revolves around its grace periods for certain items (list provided here). During these periods, trade between Great Britain and NI (which would remain in the EU’s Customs Union) would continue more-or-less as before, so businesses would be spared much of the paperwork of other third countries importing into the Single Market, so they would have time to implement those necessary changes.
With the April 1st deadline fast approaching, the British government realized that they had not adequately prepared for the paperwork requirements that they already agreed to. So rather than asking the EU for an extension, the government unilaterally decided to change the rules extending the grace periods for food parcels and soil. Changing a legal contract just because you feel like it is illegal under international law is what prompted the EU to take legal action.
Legal proceedings and UK response
In response to the EU’s legal proceedings, the UK did two things. Firstly they put forward a new four-stage timeline for a new grace period, which is more relaxed, with phase 2 extending until January 2022, to which MEPs agreed.
It is hoped that this new agreement, so long as the UK upholds its obligations when the first phase is introduced and doesn’t decide to change the goalposts again, should hopefully begin to mend UK-EU relations.
The second thing the UK did was claim that they did not break the law by considering forced majeure. Force majeure is a legal concept that allows a party to default on a contract due to unforeseeable events that affect the contract (following list adapted from TLDR News).
1) The border was controllable; the UK could have aligned with the EU’s SAP rules.
2) Unforeseeable risks outside: Risks at the Irish border were foreseeable
which is why both parties agreed to have grace periods in the first place.
3) Affects performance of the agreement: the protocol’s performance was not affected as it has a safeguard (article 16) for when things go wrong that the UK could have triggered unilaterally and legally if something goes wrong.
What happened at the G7?
G7 leaders did not criticize Brexit per se but rather the UK’s handling of legal obligations. By continuously changing the rules and breaking trade deals, Johnson has made the UK an untrustworthy partner.
Chancellor Merkel, President Macron, and Ursula von der Leyen made their frustration with Johnson known during a series of meetings. Macron is reported as saying that a reset of Franco-British relations was needed and that this could only happen if Johnson could keep his word. Macron also insisted that the NIP had already been agreed on and signed by both sides and was not up for renegotiation.
Johnson then asked how Macron would feel if sausages could not be moved from Toulouse to Paris. This prompted Macron to point out that Toulouse and Paris are contiguous and that NI was on a separate island. This triggered Dominic Raab (who has a history of being confused by islands), to misinterpret Macron’s words as implying that NI was not a part of the UK – even though Macron never suggested this.
The United States has previously stated that a UK-US trade deal would only be possible if the UK respects the GFA, and Biden continued to echo that sentiment at the G7. Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau also raised concerns with Johnson over the GFA and offered to help find a solution.
Hosting the G7 was meant to project the idea of Global Britain but instead showed the world that the UK could not be trusted. The UK violating the NIP and risking the NI peace process risks marginalizing the country.
Nigel Sheinwald, the UK’s former ambassador to the US and EU, described the situation as:
“The lesson of this week is that you can’t have a global Britain which is genuinely respected and influential and impactful around the world if people doubt your basic bona fides. There is no point in writing new Atlantic charters which depend on mutual trust, mutual confidence and the rule of law, when you are operating as chancers.”
The takeaway message is the G7 are not annoyed with the UK over the countries decision to leave the EU, but rather how it’s doing it. The West is, in theory, built on a rules-based international order and mutual respect for those rules. The system has been largely responsible for the remarkable period of peace seen between western nations since WW2. The willingness of the current incarnation of the Tory government to dismiss international law (Johnson’s predecessors have condemned this) whenever it becomes an inconvenience raises severe concerns about Britain’s future credibility.