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Sensemaker: Ulster bake-off

Sensemaker: Ulster bake-off

What just happened

Long stories short

  • EU leaders said Ukraine should be granted immediate candidate status in its bid to join the union.
  • The UK’s Gatwick airport said one in ten flights departing this summer would be cancelled because of staff shortages.
  • The Union Cycliste Internationale halved its accepted level of plasma testosterone for trans women seeking to compete in top-level cycle races.

Ulster bake-off

With all the surprise of the coming of Wimbledon, Britain has locked horns again with the EU over Northern Ireland’s borders and the goods that cross them. 

The UK government has introduced a bill to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol that enabled it to get Brexit done. The EU has hit back with two lawsuits and scarcely-veiled threats of a trade war.

There are two ways of looking at this dispute. One – rejected by a majority in the province and by many senior Conservatives – is that the EU has been inflexible even by its own standards in applying the protocol, which is causing public angst and so has to be re-written by London. 

The other is that the Johnson government wants to have its cake and eat it: Brexit thanks to the protocol, and Brexit without the protocol’s requirements.

Sound familiar? It should. The government has toyed with scrapping or unilaterally amending the protocol almost from the moment it signed it, notably when the Northern Ireland secretary admitted the UK’s 2020 Internal Market Bill would violate the protocol and thus break international law.

Why now? The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was introduced on Monday for various reasons, mostly political:

  • Devolution isn’t working. Northern Ireland’s unionists, principally the DUP, refuse to re-engage in the power-sharing with republicans that is the basis of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – i.e. of peace in the province – unless the protocol is re-worked to remove checks on goods moving from east to west across the Irish Sea. 
  • Northern Irish trade is shifting. Those checks exist to protect the EU’s single market; there has to be a border somewhere and the GFA forbids one the island of Ireland. The result is NI is effectively in the EU single market. This produced a sharp rise in trade between Ireland and NI in the first year of Brexit (a 65 per cent increase in goods moving from north to south and a 54 per cent rise in those going the other way); and a murkier dip in trade between Great Britain and the province, which the UK government isn’t anxious to measure. Unionists say, not without reason, they’ve been manoeuvered onto a long glide slope to a united Ireland. 
  • The permanent campaign. Johnson faces the likelihood of two embarrassing defeats in by-elections next Thursday. Any fight with the EU can be relied on to fire up his base, especially if it involves ritual demonisation of the European Court of Justice. Ending the ECJ’s jurisdiction over the protocol is part of the bill even there’s no alternative on offer, nor any evidence it has impacted any of Northern Ireland’s communities since Brexit.

The UK plan. Besides ending ECJ jurisdiction, the bill would 

  • end EU control over VAT levels and state aid rules in NI;
  • replace the current goods checks regime with red and green channels for goods heading to Ireland and NI respectively (together with pre-screening of ‘trusted traders’ for the green channel); and
  • include a sweeping provision for the UK government to revisit and unilaterally re-write any aspect of the revised protocol it deemed vexatious in the future. 

The EU response. One of the EU’s two new lawsuits accuses London of failing to provide adequate resources for east-west goods checks or provide data on those goods flows as promised. The other revives a previous suit that made similar claims but was suspended last year to give time for talks.

In addition the EU’s vice president, Maros Sefcovic, has reminded the UK that

  • a streamlined customs process requiring on average a three-page declaration per lorry (only) is available for east-west goods but not being used; and that
  • “It’s simply and legally and politically inconceivable that the UK government decides unilaterally what kind of goods can enter the [EU] single market.”

“Good faith” / bad faith. As a political diversion this serves Johnson well (see also the Rwanda deportation fiasco). As a way of coaxing unionists back into power-sharing it might just work. But as a resolution of the Northern Ireland problem that produced the protocol in the first place, it’s surely doomed.

The UK’s legal argument rests on the principle of “necessity”. Government lawyers claim a protocol negotiated and signed in good faith three years ago isn’t working, leaving no option but to tear it up. But both sides know Team Johnson has failed to build the infrastructure it promised to make the protocol work, relying instead on endlessly-renewed “grace periods” for exporters. That’s why it isn’t working, and the EU is tired of Britain pretending otherwise. 

tortoise quarterly

Watergate now

David Taylor and Ella Hill

Today marks 50 years since five men were caught burgling the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. – sowing the seeds for a scandal that would eventually unseat a president. In this piece from the Anniversary edition of our short book of long reads, David Taylor and Ella Hill look back on Watergate – and how it still resonates today.


Oxford’s dirty money
If you run a storied university under pressure to return a donation from the son of a Russian oil tycoon who is now under sanctions – but wasn’t at the time of the donation – what do you do? That’s the position the pro-Vice Chancellor of Oxford finds herself in now that the Times has revealed that £2.6 billion donated in 2019 to the university’s department of archaeology and anthropology by Said Gutseriev was given to him by his father, Mikhail Gutseriev, at a time when the latter was not yet sanctioned but was on the US Treasury’s “Putin list” of oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin. Oxford isn’t Princeton. £2.6 is a big chunk of money for any UK university. It’s a tricky one – or would be if Putin hadn’t disgraced everyone remotely connected to him. Give it back.


Ukraine and the EU
The move by France, Germany and Italy to get Ukraine on track towards EU membership is late, but better late than never. Nine years ago Brussels botched what should have been a meaningful overture to Ukraine at a critical moment, offering a paltry €610 million loan when to accept it would have meant Kyiv sacrificing trade with Russia. It couldn’t afford to. The then Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, accepted Putin’s better offer and the next year let his soldiers walk into Crimea. The EU’s defining role has been to expand the reach of democracy, free markets and the rule of law by making them conditions of membership. The rest of its 27 members should remember this when they meet next week to decide whether to grant Ukraine candidate status. A ‘yes’ would set a precedent that Georgia and Moldova would invoke, and would jump a queue in which the western Balkans have been waiting. But it would be the right precedent, and it might get the queue moving.


Sydney power cuts
Midwinter in Australia isn’t cold, but it’s still awkward for a new government that’s pledged to end fossil fuel dependence to have to ask families to cut back on energy use because the country’s coal-fired power plants are breaking down. Power cuts on Wednesday led to trading being suspended on Australia’s spot electricity market, and the new climate change and energy minister had to ask people not to use electrical appliances if possible between 6 and 8 pm this evening. Coal meets 65 per cent of eastern Australia’s power demand and a quarter of its coal-fired capacity is offline for planned and unplanned maintenance. Also: wind and solar output has been low and it has been a little chilly. Wholesale prices were capped on Monday, but with coal, gas and diesel prices through the roof keeping that cap on won’t be easy.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Black Death 
There is a lot we already knew about the Black Death that ripped through Europe in the 14th century. For instance: up to 50 per cent of Europe’s population was killed in just 6 years and the Mongolian army threw diseased cadavers into the city of Caffa in Crimea, now Feodosia, in one of the first recorded examples of biological warfare. How it got to Crimea and its exact geographical origin remained a mystery, until now. Researchers have discovered the “Wuhan of the Black Death” – Lake Issyk-Kul in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. A team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found the ancestral strain of the plague in the DNA of “pestilence” victims buried near the lake in 1338 and 1339 – years before the first recorded cases in Crimea. How the plague got from Central Asia to the Black Sea is still debated but trade routes linking the region likely brought rats and fleas carrying the disease. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Swiss wolves
The Swiss canton of Valais is seeking emergency powers to cull wolves that have killed more than 100 head of livestock so far this year and united a majority of local people against them. There are thought to be at least 75 wild wolves in the canton, which stretches from Lake Geneva to the Matterhorn and beyond. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports that 68 per cent of Valaisians back the emergency adoption of a hunting law that would allow any wolf known to have killed at least 10 domestic animals to be shot. The law was rejected on the federal level for precisely this relaxation of wolf protections, but local Swiss plebiscitary democracy usually gets its way. In other cantons, wolves can go on killing with impunity.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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