With his trademark dismissiveness and misguided self-confidence, Boris Johnson has declared the unilateral breaching of an international agreement as “not a big deal”. The British prime minister can’t even recognise the import of his legislation to override key sections of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The dangerous move by No 10 Downing Street affects not just the protocol: it harms the rapport between the UK and the EU at a critical juncture in European affairs, it bruises Britain’s international reputation as an honest broker and damages the Anglo-Irish relationship.
Critically, it jeopardises the peace, stability and continuity brought about by the Good Friday Agreement. Another knock-on impact is on Ireland’s membership of the single market, a crucial part of our economic prosperity.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin is correct to point out the actions of the UK government are actually “pretty serious stuff”.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has told the British side the plan would “ratchet up” tension and breach the UK’s international commitments in what he reckons is a “low point” in Brexit talks.
Yet Mr Johnson continues to play down the significance as a trifling matter of bureaucracy, insisting the legislation will introduce relatively simple changes and claiming it would be a gross overreaction if the EU retaliated with a trade war. Whether the legislation breaks international law seems not to matter.
The EU and our own Government alike are in an invidious position when dealing with Mr Johnson. He doesn’t play by any recognisable rules, bar raw political self-interest. He shows no respect for the notions of compromise, diplomacy and internationalism. Essentially, there is no normal way to respond.
Nobody wants to see a trade war but Mr Johnson seems determined to call the bluff of Brussels and bet on little appetite for taxing exports from the UK. If it was simply about easing barriers on trade from Britain to Northern Ireland, a solution would be found with give and take on both sides.
What the prime minister is proposing is a cherry picking of the protocol. He will keep the access to the single market for Northern Ireland, but dispense with rules around the European Court of Justice, VAT and competition and drop checks on goods staying north of the Border. With some justification, nobody trusts the British side to police the system to ensure there is no abuse of a dropping of inspections.
The EU will be left with little option but to issue a tough response to the British move, which will further erode the prospects of a safe outcome.
The departure of Mr Johnson from No 10 Downing Street might resolve this matter, but no one can confidently predict when that might happen and there’s no guarantee a successor wouldn’t be subservient to the Tory Eurosceptic hardliners.
Hence the Taoiseach and his Government must rely once more on the solidarity of our European partners holding.
But the patience in European capitals is waning and the focus is shifting to the danger of Russia, not the nuisance of the UK.