(Brussels) After years of intense tension, the European Union hopes that the departure of Boris Johnson, Brexit champion, will be an opportunity to renew dialogue with London on Northern Ireland, but caution prevails in the wait of his successor.
“Boris Johnson’s reign ends in disgrace, as does his friend Donald Trump. The end of an era of transatlantic populism? Let’s hope so,” tweeted Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, a staunch federalist and former European Parliament Brexit coordinator.
“Relations between the EU and the UK have suffered enormously from Johnson’s choice of Brexit. Things can only get better,” said the former Belgian Prime Minister.
For former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the departure of Boris Johnson “opens a new page in relations with the United Kingdom”.
“May it be more constructive, more respectful of the commitments made, particularly in terms of peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and more friendly with the partners of the European Union, because there is still a lot to do together”, he urged.
The European Commission declined to comment on this departure. She added that “political developments” do not change her desire to “seek solutions” to the dispute over post-Brexit customs arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson offered the Conservatives a historic majority in the House of Commons in 2019 and led the achievement of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.
But his desire to unilaterally reconsider a key text of the Brexit agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol, yet signed and ratified by both parties, has sparked threats of a trade war and strong tensions with Brussels, where he was criticized for failing to fulfill his commitments.
“No more credit”
“On the European side, Johnson no longer had any credit”, estimates Elvire Fabry of the Jacques Delors Institute but “he has not yet let go of the branch and the EU does not yet have complete visibility over the weeks and months coming “.
“The style will be different, more predictable” but “the same party remains in power. There is no disagreement on the line to follow in the relationship with the EU”, warns a European diplomat.
Among the names mentioned to succeed him, that of his Foreign Minister Liz Truss is not likely to reassure Brussels. “She was very offensive on the Northern Irish protocol, on a line very consistent with that of Johnson”, underlines Elvire Fabry.
This protocol, negotiated within the framework of the divorce treaty to answer the delicate question of the border between Northern Ireland (province of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland (member of the EU), was designed to protect the integrity of the European single market while avoiding a land border which would risk undermining the peace concluded in 1998 in Northern Ireland.
The Johnson government had accepted that Northern Ireland should remain de facto within the European market, establishing a customs border in the Irish Sea, with customs controls and formalities.
But this situation complicates supplies and arouses the rejection of the unionist community for which the place of the province within the United Kingdom is threatened.
London rejected Brussels’ proposals to ease controls in Northern Ireland and decided on a unilateral revision of the protocol, adopted in June at first reading by British MPs. This forced passage was deemed illegal by the European Union, which announced new actions that could lead to financial sanctions.
For Brussels, “the short-term priority is to re-engage in a dialogue on the protocol” because it is not a trade war which “will make it possible to resolve an absence of controls in Northern Ireland, unacceptable for Europeans”, concludes the expert from the Delors Institute.