As Boris Johnson and Liz Truss set out plans to unilaterally rip up Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland this week, Westminster commentators sought to explain what it meant. Would it placate European Research Group members enough to shore up support for the beleaguered prime minister? Would it be enough to draw an increasingly hardline Democratic Unionist Party back into Stormont’s devolved administration?
Less attention was paid by the commentariat to how another institution might react: the European Union, the bloc whose only border with the UK lies on the island of Ireland and who, along with the UK, signed the deal on the protocol which in effect kept the province within its single market two-and-a-half years ago.
Someone paying close attention is Anna Cavazzini, chair of the European Parliament’s influential committee on the internal market. And, like many in Brussels, she is not impressed.
Described as “a rising star in the Brussels bubble” by the website Politico just this week (“that is not something that I invented,” she laughs), the 39-year-old MEP says the actions of Johnson’s government are “theatre” but is clear when I speak to her from the parliament via Zoom that they could have serious consequences.
Cavazzini, a German Green, is well-disposed towards the UK. On Brexit, she says, “emotionally I’m still very, very sad… we had excellent cooperation with the British colleagues in the European Parliament”.
And she stresses that on certain issues, such as support for Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s invasion and the green agenda, relations between the EU and the UK are good. But the attitude to Johnson’s own Northern Ireland protocol, she warns, is testing patience in Brussels.
“We have a feeling the [UK] government is really deliberately not abiding to international law and to agreed and negotiated agreements which, of course, makes the trust a little bit more shaky, I would say,” she says.
“But I would say it really depends on the area. There are those areas where there’s still a close cooperation with the UK. And of course, ideally, even if we have the Brexit as it is, I would have thought the UK and EU will be much more aligned and stay aligned on a lot of issues. And of course this Northern Ireland fright does not help to solve all the other global crises.”
The EU, she says “absolutely cannot” allow Johnson’s government to play fast and loose with the single market.
“I’m a little bit frustrated when it comes to the whole situation, because I have the feeling there’s more of a theatre going on than the will to really find concrete solutions,” she says.
“The European Union and the commissioners are of course at the forefront but it has a lot of backing from all groups in the European Parliament. It’s really trying to come forward with compromises, trying to really walk a lot of steps towards the British government, for example with the green lane proposal and so on… whereas we hear that the UK government is clearly not negotiating on that basis at all and is always referring to bigger principles that make any negotiation impossible.” (The so-called green lane proposal, which the EU now says it will accept, would only require traders to provide “ordinary commercial information” rather than customs declarations and agri-food certificates.) For example, the ECJ [European Court of Justice].
“So for me I somehow have the feeling it is not about finding concrete solutions for people in Northern Ireland, or businesses that might have problems at the moment, but it is more about showing their own constituency that the EU is shitty, and I think this is not a very cooperative approach, not a very solution-oriented approach, and a little bit frustrating for us.”
The threat of a trade war between the EU and UK – which some of the more jingoistic of Johnson’s backbenchers seem to be actively willing – is not an idle threat, she suggests.
“I think no one wants a trade war, because I think, really, in this situation that’s the last thing that we need,” she says.
“But you mention the right of the European Union to control what is coming into the internal market, and the UK deliberately decided to not be part of the internal market, so of course logically there has to be some controls and some checks. So the EU is, I think, really ready to not just accept it and be passively looking at what the UK government is doing, but also preparing already some countermeasures. I think everyone prefers not to put them forward and find a negotiated solution, but I cannot guarantee that we do not end up in a trade war if there’s no solution found, and that would be of course very bad.”
What about the possibility, then, of the UK rejoining the single market? It is obviously not going to happen under the current government, but London mayor Sadiq Khan this week became the first senior Labour figure to call for it, while on the Conservative side Tobias Ellwood has backed it and even Brexit hardliner Daniel Hannan has admitted the UK should have stayed in.
“I think one step could be having an SPS agreement [on sanitary and phytosanitary measures],” says Cavazzini. “It would not be like being in the internal market, but it would really facilitate border checks, or make border checks superfluous.
“Of course, the biggest step would be the UK being back into the internal market. I have the feeling that businesses in the UK would be very happy about it. I have the feeling the Northern Ireland problem would be solved with this. But of course, I understand for those people who wanted to have this sovereignty – while I think sovereignty can be also sometimes misunderstood… for those people it would be of course very difficult because this is what they were fighting all the time about.
“I can’t really see how the discussions are going in the UK, and what are the chances, but I would say from a kind of political point of view, from looking at what the businesses want, in solving the Northern Ireland problems at the moment, that would be the best solution. But of course it’s completely up to the UK to decide on that.”
Is it, though, I ask. It would also be down to whether the EU wanted the UK back, and surely it has lost a lot of trust?
“The current UK government lost a lot of trust,” she stresses. “But I guess if any future government decides to partially change the course, I think that would be welcome.”
A tangible effect of Northern Ireland’s status effectively within the single market will be seen relatively soon, as a new EU rule which will see bloc countries using a single charging port for mobile phones and tablets will apply to Northern Ireland. (The UK government says it is not currently planning on introducing similar measures.) Cavazinni was a special rapporteur on the change, which Apple fought back hard against.
“There was a lot of pushback,” she says. “10 years ago the Commission wanted to go for a common charger but then decided to just go for a voluntary approach and not to regulate because there was so much opposition. But 10 years after we saw that there were still too many different chargers, and of course it’s mainly one big company [Apple] – also some others – so that was the reason why finally the Commission went for this regulation after trying 10 years of [a] voluntary approach. And in the course of the negotiations there was a lot of lobby pressure from especially this big company, saying it would hinder innovation, but I think it was quite easy to also dismiss or counter all these arguments.”
Of course everything pales into relevance next to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From outside it seems like the Greens in Olaf Scholz’s coalition government, particularly the energetic foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who are being more hawkish in supporting the Ukrainian efforts and providing weaponry.
“I would not call it hawkish,” says Cavazzini. “I would say the Greens in Germany have a very long tradition of supporting the Ukraine,” she says (the definite article is still common in German when referring to Ukraine).
“When Russia annexed the Krim [Crimea] and annexed part of eastern Ukraine, de facto, or started the war there, basically, the Greens were super-critical and back then already called for more sanctions. The Greens were always against Nord Stream 2 because we said we will increase our energy dependency from an autocratic regime even more. So probably I would not call it hawkish but probably more Ukraine-focused, or Ukraine solidarity. Whereas indeed the Social Democrats have a long history in cooperating with Russia, trying to understand Russia, and with some of them it is a little bit more difficult, but I would say the official SPD line is also now more aligned with ours.”
Last month the EU granted both Ukraine and Moldova candidate status. While a symbolic political gesture, though, it’s difficult to see either joining the single market any time soon with the pair ranking 122nd and 105th respectively in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perception Index. It’s something Cavazzini seems to acknowledge.
“I think it was important that now the Parliament and also the Council did this very important political sign that we want to have the Ukraine and Moldova in and Georgia potentially at a later stage, not forgetting the Western Balkan countries but it will still take a lot of time,” she says.
“And also the Ukrainian government knows that. They cannot do it from one day to the other, and see in the Western Balkans how long this process takes. We also saw what happens when, for example with Romania and Bulgaria, you take countries on board where the corruption problem is not solved yet, so I think it is really important to make sure the countries fulfil the Copenhagen criteria [the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the EU] before they enter. Ukraine, nevertheless, I think it’s really important we gave the sign now of candidate status because… it gives them moral support right now.”
So perhaps the EU’s overture to Ukraine is as performative as the UK’s actions over the Northern Ireland protocol. Who knows if, by the time Ukraine is a part of the single market, it will take its place alongside a returned UK? And how far, by that time, this particular star of the Brussels bubble has risen?
“I’m really, really happy in my position,” she laughs. “I’m very honoured and glad that I have the chance to become chair of the committee. And I love my job. Being a European parliamentarian is one of the best jobs you can have because you can really have so much influence if you can manage to convince colleagues of your ideas. And this is really amazing.”