No controls, no ‘Welcome’ signs. Nothing on the road that connects Dundalk (Republic of Ireland, European territory) with Newry (British territory) indicates that you have crossed from one country to another. Only the change from kilometers to miles and some posters against Brexit or in favor of the unity of the island reflect the invisible border through which some 35,000 citizens pass every day to go to work or to shop.
They do not have to get their passports or account for what they transport, because the British divorce from the European Union included a Protocol to avoid a physical border along those almost 500 kilometers that divide the island.
Under the agreement, Northern Ireland remains linked to the single market and therefore subject to EU rules. In exchange, the controls are carried out in the Northern Irish ports. This is an attempt to prevent products traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland ending up on European territory (via the Republic of Ireland) without the relevant phytosanitary reviews.
“I pass here several times every day and I don’t think the tensions will end up raising a physical border.” The driver of the bus that takes us from Dundalk to Newry is convinced that Boris Johnson’s last pulse to Brussels, threatening to blow up the protocol, will not tip in favor of the British prime minister.
He does not want to talk about what ‘Brexit’ has meant for him, but – a true reflection of the kindness of the Irish – he does not care if we ask him, or that we photograph the path that leads us to British territory, together to schoolchildren and citizens on both sides of the border.
“Many factories in London are short staffed and that affects the entire production chain”
That feeling of calm is also evidenced by the employees of a northern pharmacy and a small greengrocer installed in the Central Market of Newry. Their main suppliers are local or Irish, so they do not depend so much on what comes from Great Britain to source.
“There were more problems at the beginning of the ‘Brexit’, with the supermarket shelves empty, but it has been improving. Nor is it difficult to get meat, although we think we will have more problems in the face of Christmas, when the demand for turkeys rises. Niamh works in a popular butcher shop in the center of this town about 50 minutes from Belfast. From the local Downey’s Butcher & Deli where he works, he recounts how in the northernmost regions of the island they may have had more problems, which last April were reflected in a rebound in street altercations that awoke the ghosts of the hardest years of violence.
When leaving work, where her father continues to cut chickens and sausages, Niamh accompanies us with her car to some parts of the island where the political gibberish that has always surrounded the region continues to be evident. There are party cartels that advocate for the unity of the island, for the referendum. And there is some trace -the least- against Brexit. After all, we must remember that on this side of the island 56% of the population voted to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
“I am against ‘Brexit’, particularly because of Ireland’s proximity to the UK. Most of the people of Northern Ireland are against it, the government does not represent us ”, says Kevin indignantly, who also explains how in areas like Belfast the situation is more complicated. Closer to the border, things seem different and far removed from the supply crisis that in recent weeks has left images of long lines at gas stations in Britain, fights or empty shelves in supermarkets.
Of course, everyone agrees that the consequences of ‘Brexit’ have been noted in a rise in prices that has been accentuated by the labor shortage after ‘Brexit’. “Many factories there are short-staffed and that affects the entire production chain,” they say.
The European Commission is aware that the Irish Protocol is not a panacea to facilitate trade in the area. They are not taken by surprise. “Boris Johnson has sold that the exit was going to be all benefits and no disadvantages, but the EU has always made it very clear that the withdrawal implied being a third country for all purposes,” says Inmaculada Rodríguez-Piñero, MEP for the PSOE.
The message is that Europe will not do anything that could jeopardize social peace in Ireland. Hence his latest offer includes an 80% reduction in merchandise controls and greater flexibility to deal with bureaucratic red tape. But the United Kingdom wants to go further and demands a drastic modification of the protocol that they themselves signed and that officially entered into force in January 2021.
Among other things, and in addition to eliminating customs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it states that if merchants declare that the products remain in the British province, they should not pass any type of control. Something with some sense if it weren’t for the fact that Johnson has breached many points of the agreements reached with Brussels. Consulted sources recognize it. It is unreliable. So the Union does not want to risk leaving the entire area free of passage, given the risk that these products finally reach the single market, without controls, via Northern Ireland.
But the most controversial point, and for which the European Commission is not willing to give in an iota, is its intention to reach a new agreement so that Northern Ireland is out of the control of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), which is, among others, the one that monitors that the ‘Brexit’ pacts are fulfilled.
This possibility is unaffordable for Brussels. A red line in which tougher positions are already beginning to appear in the face of British demands. “If we accept a breach of the protocol, I don’t know where the European project would be. Controls can be relaxed, but eliminating them is impossible. The pacts are to be fulfilled », summarizes the popular MEP José Manuel García-Margallo. “The environment is very delicate and the important thing is to reach an agreement, because it would be setting a very dangerous precedent: we have 45 association agreements with third countries,” he recalls.
In the same vein, Jordi Cañas MEP for Citizens, who believes that the current situation is the consequence of “building a political argument from a lie,” is manifesting. In his opinion, the European Union will from now on maintain a flexible but firm position, where the red line will be to ensure that Northern Ireland does not become a free passage for exports to the EU.
“The limit is that we are not going to negotiate a new Protocol and if the United Kingdom decides to abandon it, it will have consequences, and not only because the conflict in Northern Ireland is fueled,” they warn from the Commission.
The ball is now in the office of Boris Johson, politically pressured by unionists to break protocol. “We have been very generous with the Irish Protocol so as not to damage relations, but we have a limit,” they warn from Brussels. That is, there will be retaliation if Johnson decides to unilaterally cancel the Northern Irish protocol. “The border, either you put it in the sea or you put it on land, but they must be aware of the political problem that would unleash for the citizens of Northern Ireland,” they say.
They are clear that Europe will not be the one to break the deck. And they no longer rule out anything. Not even that Johnson activates the famous Article 16 of the protocol, which allows both the UK and the EU to take unilateral action if its application “leads to serious economic, social or environmental difficulties that may persist or divert trade. ». But it does not give the right to suspend the entire agreement. Only to take specific measures allowing the other party to take theirs proportionally. And all subject to independent arbitration.
“If you ask me a few months ago, I would tell you that it is impossible for something like this to happen, but with the experience of recent times, it is not something unreasonable,” say sources consulted. It is not just about putting pressure on Brussels. Boris Johnson’s intention would be to win vote sympathy at a time when parties like Sinn Fein continue to rise like foam in the heat of a proposal for a referendum for a united Ireland. And from what is being said in some neighborhoods, the feeling that is beginning to permeate Northern Ireland is also that Downing Street is using the territory for its own political purposes.