Irish Examiner View: High-stakes game of Brexit bluff

Irish Examiner View: High-stakes game of Brexit bluff

EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen and EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier have both warned UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson not attempt to override elements of the Northern Ireland protocol.

All of the world's great religions advocate extended periods of fasting to purify the soul and body. 

Lent, Ramadan, Tisha B'Av, and Navrathri, the old Brehon Law purging of torscad too. Those traditions are variations on a theme and all have a common conclusion - a period of exceptional celebration and feasting. 

Imagine the celebration and feasting if we could get to, say, March 16 next when the runners and riders in the Unibet Champion Hurdle line up on what is scheduled as the opening day of Cheltenham 2021 with a good, workable Brexit deal, Joe Biden in the White House, growing confidence that the pandemic's second wave was not as devastating as it might have been and the news that a C19 vaccine has been found all underpinned by a more stable Government building a decent track record. 

Some or all that bucket list may transpire but our capacity to ensure one event or another is so limited that a degree of stoicism is needed to avert deepening disappointment with the direction our world has taken.

That disappointment cannot but have deepened this weekend when reports that the UK will attempt to override elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol through upcoming legislation despite that protocol being part of an internationally recognised treaty.

EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen immediately warned Boris Johnson not to break international law. 

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was concerned: “I remain worried... the British want the best of both worlds.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said Britain may be sabre-rattling but “no domestic law can trump an international treaty.” 

He added pointedly: “We expect any honourable country like the UK to honour its international commitments.” 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said such a course of action would be “very unwise”. 

EU diplomats were aghast, cautioning that such a step would destroy Britain’s integrity and make a catastrophic EU exit on December 31 more likely. 

Sterling, the ultimate arbiter, fell around half a percent against the dollar and euro in response.

If the attention of the suggestion was to refocus attention it certainly succeeded. 

However, the suggestion is so wild that, in normal circumstances and with normal players, it could be dismissed as a gambit from a team that finally realises that if it is to enjoy EU trading opportunities it cannot be allowed undermine the structures that sustain the EU. 

Some Brexiteers may be indifferent to that synergy but it is and must remain, an over-riding, non-negotiable principle for the EU. 

This red-line was obvious before even one vote was cast in the 2016 referendum so it is disappointing, and disingenuous that it is still contested. 

Boris Johnson may huff and puff about international treaties, threatening to blow the house down, but as Mr Varadkar warned, domestic British law offers a foil. 

Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority means he can enact more or less any legislation he chooses. 

However, international treaties take precedence over domestic British law, so their courts would be expected to invalidate any provisions that undermine the Withdrawal Agreement suggesting this latest in a line of “fall back options” is more a bluff dressed as hard-nosed negotiation.

We are at the sharp end of these negotiations and no-one can do more than speculate on how they might conclude. Just as is the case with the pandemic, uncertainty prevails. 

In these circumstances, it seems appropriate to imagine the worst while hoping that, come March 16, we will be able to celebrate the end of a most difficult period.     

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