Tensions mount in Northern Ireland as British and EU powers seek advantage in trade negotiations

A war of words has erupted between representatives of the British and EU negotiators ahead of the latest looming deadline in the saga of trade negotiations around the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.

The first sign that a manoeuvre on the British side was forthcoming was a sharp and unexpected attack on the Northern Ireland protocol by the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson. Later that same day it was leaked via a Financial Times correspondent that the Tories were seeking to introduce new legislation which cut across the protocol. In a clear move to up the ante, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis blurted that the ‘internal Market bill’ represented a breach of international law but only in a ‘specific and limited’ way.

The trade dispute at the heart of the current Brexit farrago is reflective of heightening inter-imperialist rivalries globally. In this case, on one side, the Tories have chosen to raise the stakes by introducing legislation that could force the government in the South of Ireland to meet their EU obligations and impose border controls on their side of the north-south land border. On the other the EU powers, with the right-wing coalition government in Dublin cheerleading, have raised doubts over the legality of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland should a wider trade deal fail to be agreed.

Not to be outdone in the global pursuit of economic and political advantage over the terms of Brexit, US democrats led by Presidential candidate Joe Biden and Speaker of the House, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, have entered the fray. They have sought to use the purported threat of a hard land border to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland to raise the prospect of torpedoing any future UK-US trade deal (a centre-piece of the Trump-Johnson political axis).

Negotiating leverage is not only sought over rights to catch or sell fish or even the pass-porting of financial products but once again the ordinary people in Ireland, north and south, have become pawns in the great game.

The Northern Ireland protocol

The Northern Ireland protocol, central to the EU Withdrawal Agreement, was conceded by the UK government to EU, and Irish, negotiators who demanded it as a pre-requisite to any future trade deal. They claimed it was necessary to ensure continued free and frictionless trade on the island of Ireland and to underpin the peace in Northern Ireland.

In effect, the protocol conceded that Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU trading bloc – subject to neo-liberal EU strictures on state-aid and compliance with EU-wide Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) standards on all goods transiting the Irish sea. Under the agreement, goods produced in Northern Ireland could transit freely to Great Britain. Goods however travelling the other direction would need to be subject to checks to ensure product standards as well as the charging of custom duties on anything that would subsequently pass through the North to the South.

The highly integrated nature of production and distribution chains globally make moves to reshape trade relations inherently damaging. This is particularly the case in Britain and Ireland where the linkages are very extensive indeed. As an example, agri-food produce from Northern Ireland, and the Republic, is often shipped to Britain for processing or packaging before being shipped back to distribution through British retailers, based North and South. It is clear that any attempt to restrict or impose controls on trade entering Northern Ireland from Britain would be debilitating and result in significant economic dislocation.

While what passes for a bourgeoisie in Northern Ireland was largely reassured by promises of free and frictionless access to Great Britain markets, the risk of a spike in inflation arising from checks on consumable goods travelling east-west was largely ignored. Such inflation would devastate workers’ standards of living in an inherently low-wage economy.

The Internal Market Bill

The Tories’ Internal Market Bill, which has been voted through its second reading, gives London the power to cut across any aspects of the protocol should they wish at a future point. In particular the power to potentially refuse to impose east-west checks thereby compelling Brussels to defend the integrity of the EU-wide market and force the capitalist Irish government to impose border checks on its side of the North-South land border.

For their part, Boris Johnson’s government has sought to justify the move by claiming that the EU negotiators have failed to fulfil the terms of the Withdrawal agreement. The demand they negotiate in good faith is effectively the demand for a free trade deal acceptable to British capitalism.

London has sought to downplay the implications of the Internal Market Bill. They claim to be committed to conduct the checks necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and assert that their bill is motivated by a need to counter the implied threat of a EU-sponsored food blockade on Northern Ireland.

The accusation of a blockade is strenuously denied both by Dublin and Brussels but it is true that the UK, or more accurately Great Britain, will remain a ‘third party country’ under the protocol unless the EU agrees. That status would impede goods which may no longer comply with the EU SPS regime being exported into the EU trading zone, which includes Northern Ireland.

Seeking Competitive Advantage

The concern for the integrity of the United Kingdom may only be a cover for a deeper agenda. The Tories are determined to remove the UK from a system whereby its use of capitalist state-aid is effectively regulated by its capitalist competitors on the continent. Under current arrangements state-aid, even in Great Britain, if judged to affect the integrity of the EU market (which includes Northern Ireland under the protocol) is subject to regulation by the enforcer of pan-European neo-liberal discipline, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The EU demand for the UK as a whole to be bound by ‘state-aid’ rules as interpreted by the ECJ is clearly intended to undercut the potential advantage that capitalist state-aid policies might give British industry over EU competitors as well as to dampen the demand for similar measures from European workers. It also seeks to place a barrier in the way of any government coming to power which might want to nationalise industries, a necessary step to establish a socialist economy

Throughout the negotiations the EU powers have sought to exact a hefty price from the UK for leaving its trading bloc ‘pour encouragez les autres’ (as Napoleon once said in justification for his execution of a general). If the UK secures a favourable deal outside the EU, the demand for similar deals outside the EU market will mount elsewhere. In part, the Northern Ireland protocol reflects that priority. The sense of being punished is one that clearly rankles with the dominant section of capitalism reflected in the UK government.

All this paints a clear picture of competing imperialisms seeking trading advantage regardless of the consequences in terms of divisions and a rise in tensions in Northern Ireland.

Workers must not pay the price

Northern Ireland workers and those in the Republic of Ireland have no stake in any of the deals being pushed by the ruling elites in London, Dublin, Brussels or Washington. They offer nothing to working class people except a mechanism for continued exploitation and heightened division. Avoiding a hard north-south border is vital to avoid further escalating tensions. At the same time, a hard sea border east-west will inflame concerns, causing further division.

AS opposed to a battle over which set of billionaires, wrapped in their respective flags, will gain advantage from future trade arrangements; socialists seek to ‘bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality’ as said in the Communist Manifesto. Neither free trade nor nationalist economic policy (protectionism) offer any more solution to our problems today than they did 170 years ago.

The workers’ movement, the trade unions and genuine left parties in Ireland, Europe and the USA must seek to cut across those who wish to corral workers behind the agenda of imperialist trade blocs on either side. We must broadcast loudly at every chance to workers that the only ‘us and them’ is us, the working class, and them, the boss class.


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