In recent days, there seems to have been a real shift in tone in the debate around the Northern Ireland Protocol and whether or not the Government intends to trigger Article 16, the dispute resolution mechanism which would allow the UK to set aside parts of the deal to prevent diversion of trade.
Ministers have insisted for weeks that Britain has grounds for doing so. Brussels, previously big on insisting that the UK honour what it signed, responded by claiming that employing a dispute resolution mechanism included in an agreement was somehow a breach of that agreement, and threatening to find responses outside it instead.
In Whitehall, the thinking was thus: the Government only had so long to maintain its credibility with the Unionists. If it failed to act, it risked opening up political space for more radical elements to harness popular opposition to the Protocol in Northern Ireland. So if a deal wasn’t reached, Article 16 it would have to be.
Yet all of a sudden, it is being reported that the UK has blinked. Apparently, the EU is confident of a deal.
What’s going on? We won’t know for certain until we see the actual proposals. If they really are substantive changes (of the sort very clever people have kept insisting are impossible), then a deal really has been done. Credit to David Frost and the team, if so.
One alternative theory is simply that the UK has backed down. This is the line Dominic Cummings is selling: that Frost et al have a strategy for implementing Article 16 but know that the Prime Minister lacks the nerve to see it through. The EU will offer some face-saving tweaks and the Government will put the episode behind it, at least for now.
This obviously can’t be ruled out. But the problem with it is that unless the negotiated changes are saleable to the Unionists, then the Northern Irish problem doesn’t actually go anywhere. That’s one of the factors which has been pushing ministers towards Article 16 in the first place. Perhaps the threat of EU retaliation outweighs this, we’ll see.
Another alternative view is that the UK hasn’t actually blinked at all. On the contrary, might the Government actually be laying the groundwork for triggering Article 16?
If it does, it is very much in London’s interests to appear to have conducted itself as constructively as possible before acting. A last-ditch effort to find a negotiated settlement frames the act in a much more favourable way than an extra few weeks of bellicosity. Except if this is what’s going on, why is Brussels playing along? It doesn’t suit the EU to be talking up the UK’s reasonable attitude if it doesn’t think it sincere.
All of which is to say that until the UK has made a concrete response to a set of concrete proposals from the EU, there doesn’t seem to be much to be gained by putting too much stock in this sort of shadow-boxing in the media.