The incoherence of the Brexiters’ notion of sovereignty is now all too clear. Reports suggest that the Prime Minister has reached an agreement with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, indicating that the UK government now accepts the role of the European Court of Justice. A deal along those lines would mean the government has finally given in on a disagreement that has caused huge political tension in Westminster, and economic damage to Northern Ireland. The government claims this is their own plan, and that somehow, the pain has all been worth it, in the name of maintaining the union’s sovereignty.
The sovereignty argument has been at the centre of most Conservative post-Brexit policy, and at the heart of that is the Northern Ireland Protocol. Boris Johnson once promised that an Irish Sea border would happen over his dead body, before signing an agreement that created an Irish sea border. In the mess that followed, the EU sued Britain, while the UK blamed Europe.
The government plan proposes “green and red channels”, where goods travelling from the UK to Northern Ireland are treated differently to those that move onto the single market. But really, this arrangement is a reheated version of May’s deal on Northern Ireland. What was called a “surrender deal” at the time has now been repackaged by Brexiters as a British victory.
And yet – in 2021, the European Commission itself proposed a plan to differentiate between goods travelling to Northern Ireland and the single market. The proposal included a variety of policies to enhance operations, most significantly regarding data-sharing and border control posts (BCPs).
The government’s negotiations with the EU have been full of these reversals. During earlier negotiations, the Brexiters argued for the Malthouse Compromise, a proposal that Prime Minister May would negotiate a free trade deal for Northern Ireland, made possible by as-yet-unknown technology. This idea had already been rejected by the EU when No10 proposed it. Similarly, all of the Johnson government’s proposals got nowhere. And now the UK has come round to the policy the EU suggested back in 2020. The EU’s chief-negotiator Maroš Šefčovič downplayed the likeness: “We do not insist on the precise names, we just want to make sure that the system would work.”
The British approach to negotiation has been to reject whatever the EU proposes, suggest a set of unfeasible ideas and then eventually come round to accepting what the EU originally proposed. Having done so, you make it look like part of a plan, and that it was the UK’s idea.
And at the heart of it all is the reflexive disdain for the European Court of Justice. David Frost has argued that if the court retained its powers of oversight then the Protocol would not survive. The EU has rejected any idea that ECJ oversight should be removed.
Finally, and inevitably, the UK has accepted an “arms-length” arrangement on the court’s role, something that it is already set out in the current Protocol. Under this new deal, the ability to refer cases to the ECJ will remain. Supported by international law, the ECJ can even apply financial penalties to the UK.
The hypocrisy of British “cakeism” is best exemplified by Steve Baker. Once chair of the European Research Group, the Tory party europhobe group, Baker became the “Rebel Ringleader”, who brought down May to protect British sovereignty. At the time, he rejected any role for the ECJ. Now Baker is Northern Ireland Minister, and the UK has seemingly accepted the role of the ECJ as the final arbiter over any disputes in Northern Ireland. Essentially, the ECJ’s role as the “ultimate arbitrator of EU law” continues, breaking the UK, and Steve Baker’s, red line. The role of the ECJ remains essentially unchanged.
Even so, less than two weeks before any sign of an agreement, Sunak assured the backbenches that UK sovereignty would be left intact and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, promised that any deal would “enhance the union”. The emptiness of the ideological devotion to sovereignty is shown up all too clearly in the government’s dramatic political inconsistencies.
Unelected and behind in the polls, Sunak has staked his reputation on getting the Protocol issue resolved by April. Under huge political pressure, he has apparently accepted that the only feasible, workable, and beneficial solution to the Protocol issue is the one first proposed by the EU nearly three years ago.
Throughout it all, dogma and partisan politics have been put ahead of the concerns of Northern Irish citizens. The weaponisation of sovereignty has seen the Conservatives turn full circle, hypocritically continuing the staunch defence of their own misconceptions, rather than simply accepting defeat.
Dan Sutton is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Manchester.
Dr. Christos Kourtelis is lecturer in European and International Politics at Loughborough University