Twice in as many years, Brexit has been declared “done” without being done. The UK’s membership of the EU formally expired in January 2020. The change in status was camouflaged by transitional arrangements that expired at the start of 2021. Even now, there is a three-month “grace period” waiving aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol of the final deal.
Now the UK wants more time. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has written to the European commission demanding a much longer transition to ease the bureaucratic burden for goods crossing the Irish Sea. His combative tone has not gone down well in Brussels.
On Thursday, Mr Gove meets Maroš Šefčovič, his EU counterpart on the joint committee overseeing the protocol, and the dynamics are grimly familiar from every previous chapter of the Brexit process. The commission reminds the UK that it has signed a treaty and is bound by its provisions. Buyer’s remorse is not grounds to renege. The UK side insists that Brussels is failing to respect its neighbour and trying to dictate terms instead of conducting a dialogue between equals.
Mr Gove has felt emboldened in this row ever since 29 January, when Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, triggered (and then quickly un-triggered) emergency clauses to suspend the protocol in a dispute over cross-border flows of Covid vaccine. It is hard to overstate how reckless and counterproductive that move was. The article 16 mechanism is meant to be a last resort, not a standard tool in the diplomatic arsenal. By reaching for it so early, Ms von der Leyen squandered moral authority and goodwill on an issue where both are needed to coax the UK into normalisation of the new arrangements.
EU officials note that Boris Johnson threatened repudiation of the protocol last year, even before it had been ratified, so the squandering of goodwill started on the UK side. An argument about who started what bodes ill for the future operation of a delicate deal. It is true that Mr Johnson’s rhetoric around Northern Ireland has never reflected the reality of what he signs up to. In October 2019, when he completed the withdrawal agreement, he promised there would be no customs barriers in the Irish Sea. That was untrue, as Northern Irish businesses have discovered.
Across the UK, firms and consumers are discovering costs of Brexit that Mr Johnson denied. That denial was born of a failure to understand the trade-off between regulatory autonomy and market access. The prime minister swapped seamless trade for notional sovereignty and passed the cost on to unsuspecting businesses. Naturally, he wants to blame the EU for any pain. These are not teething troubles in implementation of the deal. They are the deal.
Alongside the economic adjustment, there needs to be political adjustment to the new relationship. The commission’s vaccine blunder has not helped. But the greater obstacle is British ministers’ unwillingness to accept that the rules they now find so objectionable are the same ones they so recently cheered as a triumph. Either they failed to understand the deal, or had no intention of keeping their word. Neither explanation reflects well on the prime minister or the Brexit he mis-sold to the country.