US Putting Choke Chain on UK Over Threat to Invoke Article 16, Retrade Brexit Irish Protocol

It’s pretty rich to see the Government caught flat-footed when other parties deliver on their threats. The latest example is the US saying very clearly and repeatedly to the UK during the Brexit negotiations not to touch the third rail of the Good Friday Agreement if the UK wanted a US trade deal.

The new wrinkle is that if anything the US muscling has escalated as the UK has talked up invoking Article 16 to force a renegotiation of provisions related to Northern Ireland. Before it was Congresscritters, most loudly Nancy Pelosi, who said no way no how would any trade deal be approved by them if the UK reneged on the God Friday Agreement. The Financial Times reports that the Administration is now acting as enforcer.

This story is a Financial Times exclusive and as of this hour, we don’t see any original input from other outlets, so forgive the dependence on the pink paper. The source of a sense of urgency is that the UK is now at a disadvantage relative to the EU because only the UK is now subject to some tariffs imposed in the Trump era.

Politico gave an overview of the issue, voicing the UK worry that its trade deal, which would provide relief from these tariffs, had become hostage to the UK’s spat with the EU over Northern Ireland.

For those of you who have not been following the neverending Brexit closely, a very simplified version. The bone of contention is that Northern Ireland is under EU rules for trade-related matters so as to avoid a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland. However, this creates difficulties for shipping goods between Northern Ireland and the UK. In reality, being tied economically into the EU has been a boon to Northern Ireland:

However, militant Protestants are not happy about perfidious Irish influence (not that it’s clear that they are capable of or would go on an IRA level campaign, but there have been a few car bombings). But the real driver of this train is Tory ideologues, who among other things want to free the UK of the limited and so far theoretical jurisdiction of the ECJ over certain Northern Ireland matters.

About a month go, the Government was threatening to invoke Article 16 which would among other things let the UK retaliate for its supposed suffering. The EU quickly offered tailored concessions around the goods traded between the UK and Northern Ireland, but also made clear that the jurisdiction of the ECJ is not negotiable.

As an aside, we pointed out then that the UK threat wasn’t as clever as it seems. The EU can also retaliate under Article 16, and it has plenty of informal ways it can retaliate outside Article 16.

The UK (as in Lord Frost) made noises that strongly suggested the UK was going to pull the Article 16 trigger soon. Some political mavens thought so to, so as to give Johnson some press putting the Government in the “take charge” frame as it was getting heat for supply shortages. But that went quiet. Perhaps now we know why.

From Politico:

Westminster is worried that instead of improving trade between the U.K. and the U.S., Brexit is making it more difficult.

U.S. President Joe Biden has warned the U.K. to tread with caution on the pact governing trade between Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the EU in the wake of Brexit, and fears an upset could imperil the hard-fought peace in the nation. But the British government has been threatening to trigger a nuclear clause in the protocol that could bring it crashing down.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has kept in place punishing tariffs on steel and aluminum first imposed during the Donald Trump administration. Britain has been unable to shake the tariffs off — despite Washington doing a deal to end the same war with Brussels a month ago — but will make a fresh appeal when its top trade minister visits Washington next week.

“This is yet another example of British industry paying the price for Boris Johnson’s botched Brexit deal,” said Shadow Foreign Minister Stephen Kinnock, who represents the steel-making seat of Aberavon in Wales. He said the tariffs were a simple method of inflicting pain on the U.K. over the protocol….

Trade expert Sam Lowe of Flint Global agreed that the protocol is putting an extra spanner in the works. “While it’s not the only reason the U.K. is finding it difficult to agree a deal with the U.S. to remove steel and aluminum tariffs, as the EU has done,” he said, “the ongoing standoff over Northern Ireland is certainly making it more difficult.”

The Financial Times provides evidence supporting these suspicions:

The US is delaying a deal to remove Trump-era tariffs on UK steel and aluminium because of Washington’s concerns about London’s threats to change post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland.

Brussels and Washington have repeatedly warned London that unilaterally changing the EU-UK accord that sealed Britain’s exit from the bloc in 2020 could threaten peace on the island of Ireland.

In a communication seen by the Financial Times, a US commerce department official stated that talks with the UK on easing metals tariffs could not move ahead.

The official cited US concerns at British threats to trigger Article 16, a safeguard clause in the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol that overrides part of the UK’s exit with the EU and would suspend checks on goods travelling to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Washington had informed the UK of the reason for the hold-up, the communication said. Three people familiar with the matter also said talks were stuck after pressure from Congress over the UK’s threats to trigger the clause.

As I read this, the Administration isn’t simply saying “We won’t waste our time on a deal that Congress will nix.” It comes off as if the Administration is stating that it is of the same view, it won’t pursue a trade deal if the UK is going to mess with with Irish Protocol.

The article includes official “no comments” from the Commerce Department and the US trade representative, a claim from the National Security Council that there was no connection between the Irish Protocol spat and the US-UK trade talks (as if they were in this particular loop), and plenty of harrumphing from the UK department of trade. One presumes the US does not want to be seen as throwing its weight around in third party-relations of supposed close allies, but it’s no fun being a superpower otherwise.

The UK may in fact have gotten itself in a pickle with the US. Anyone who has been paying much attention to this row, or alternatively spoken to EU diplomats would have worked out that the UK is proposing to renege on an treaty it just signed and even touted as a great deal. That is bad faith behavior of the first order. For Ireland-backers in the US, it raises the specter of why ever give the UK a trade deal, since once it has that in hand, it will feel free to mess with the Ireland Protocol with impunity. And for appearance reasons, the US can’t tie UK treaty terms to continued good behavior with respect to the Irish protocol, even in the highly unlikely event that the UK would stomach requirements like that.

So the UK may have totally bollixed a US trade deal, at least unless and until Republicans are in charge. But the Irish mafia may be so powerful as to be able to block Congressional approval even with the Democrats in a minority. And I don’t see how the UK unrings the bell after having escalated to the point that the EU delivered a response which the UK keeps saying is not acceptable. Stay tuned.

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  1. Fazal Majid

    I think the message is clear: exercising Article 16 will lead to US sanctions against the UK. The Irish government has been planning for UK duplicity (English really) since 2016, as they’ve had centuries of experience, and quietly but highly effectively lobbying the US government. The election of Irish-American Joe Biden to the presidency obviously made it easier, but this is one of the few bipartisan issues the US government is united on. Plus there are a number of Obama-era officials in the White House who remember Boris Johnson’s racist tirades against Obama and have not forgiven him for those (nor should they, frankly).

    The UK government may be run by mountebanks and amateurs, but I still don’t understand why they keep making outlandish demands to appease the Brexit tabloid audiences, when they are inevitably followed by humiliating climb-downs shortly afterwards.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Perhaps they still think they are living in their better past, when an Angloristocrat’s word was law.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Its not exactly like this was unexpected – Pelosi was signalling this from the very beginning. Somehow, the London government were the only people not to realise that the Irish American lobby would make life very difficult for them. And you only need look at the surnames of many senior Republicans to see that its not just a Democrat thing. A quick perusal of the right wing British media over the last few years when the topic of Ireland and the US is raised will reveal the toxic combination of bigotry and ignorance is very much a ‘thing’. Ironically, Irish Americans are often far more sensitive to this than Irish people are (we are used to it).

    Johnson is in serious political trouble now – even the Tory papers are turning on him. I had assumed that he might save up an Article 16 revocation as a distraction, but more hardened political watchers seem to have concluded that its the opposite situation – invoking A.16 is something he would do at a point of political strength in order to stamp his authority over the party. Even Johnson must know that there are limits to the advantages he can accrue from creating unnecessary chaos.

    Even the Northern Ireland Unionists have no realised that they have to change course. In todays Irish Times, Emerson Newton (their token pro-Unionist opinion writer) has noted that the DUP are desperately trying to pull a u-turn. The big difference between the NI economy and the UK economy as a whole is that it is much smaller, much more dependent on a limited number of industries, so you can’t hide any impacts behind Covid. I don’t think the average British person realises just how much Brexit is hitting them in the wallet as its hidden behind so many other things going on – but Northern Irelanders know exactly what will happen if, for example, the dairy industry, or the concrete products industry, suddenly faces major restrictions on trade with the Republic and the EU in general. So even the most ideologically hard line Unionists are now reluctantly facing up to facts. No doubt this comes from behind the scenes briefings from constituents in business.

    It should be said that the EU has as usual handled this very well. A lot of people criticised them for making so many early concessions to the UK, but in reality they were just ensuring that from the perspective of outsiders (mostly the US), they were going into this with ‘clean hands’, so it would always be apparent that this is London’s mess and nobody elses.

  3. Tom Stone

    The “Irish Mafia”is one thing,and very real.
    The militant Irish Nationalists here in the USA are another thing entirely, their hatred of perfidious Albion is incandescent and undying.
    Back in the day a lot of money and a lot of guns flowed from the San Francisco Bay Area to the IRA and IRA splinter groups and their was a bit of a shadow war going on here between MI6 and the Irish Radicals.
    I had some long talks with a very old school retired Irish Homicide cop from SF who owned a couple of Irish Bars and was involved in the fundraising, gun running and more for many decades.
    VERY old school.
    Quite a character, and I would not be surprised if he did a bit of wet work for the cause back in the day.
    He died of natural causes about a decade ago at the age of 89.

    1. Laughingsong

      OMG, yes indeed I remember some of this from the early 80s especially, during this time I hung out with some people adjacent to this at the Plough and Stars, a block off Geary just as the Avenues started. A place where you’d hear a young girl sing “The Bogside Man”. I had no idea, however, that it was that serious Tom…not that I didn’t know these people were dedicated but I wasn’t aware of the level.

      1. Count Zero

        Has anybody ever investigated the role of US political organisations in the funding of IRA terrorist activity in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s? I think there were “philanthropic” organisations that collected money and funnelled it to terrorist groups in Ireland?

        How long do you have to be in the USA before you cease to be Irish-American? Or does it go on for ever? Like millions of others in Britain, I have several ancestors on both sides of my family who got out of Ireland in the 1840s. But we don’t call ourselves Irish-English. Ironically Irish-Americans who hate so-called Brits are often hating people whose ancestors also got out of Ireland. Nationalism is always stupid.

        1. eg

          It will take centuries for the diaspora to view the English with anything other than suspicion. Centuries.

        2. SOMK

          The loyalist “terrorists” on the other hand needed no foreign backers as they were funded and armed by the British state with British army issue weapons, meanwhile the British state has proven incapable of prosecuting its state employed terrorists ie. soldiers, having dragged its feet over the matter for half a century until said state employee terrorists are now dying of old age. The reaction to the ‘inability’ of the British to prosecute its own terrorists (in what the BBC calls “legacy cases”) has been met with the sound of crickets in the U.K. (the left included).

          Consider worrying less about the Irish-Americans and more about your own.

    2. Sleeping Dog

      During mid 70’s, I was a grad student in Boston and friendly with a couple fellow students with family roots in Southie. We’d go down there to drink and in every bar I went to there were several small, white, collection containers on the bar, similar to juice cans. These weren’t for contributions to the local parish. You were expected to drop your coins in and after Whitey Bulger took his cut the rest went to the defense of Ireland.

  4. Robert Hahl

    I don’t know how much trade the UK still does with the former Indochina, but between the wars it was possible for the US to charge punitively high tolls at the Panama Canal to British ships and exert a lot of influence. One reason for our “special relationship.” Germany wasn’t controllable in this way and we all know how that turned out. See, Kolko, Main Currents in American History. Excellent book btw.

  5. orlbucfan

    “Ironically, Irish-Americans are often far more sensitive to this than Irish people are (we are used to it).” Very true, PK. I am third generation Irish. My paternal great-grandparents fled the British starvation of the Irish during the Great Potato Famine in the mid 19th century. They were among the lucky ones. I know fellow Irish-Americans who still bristle over this unfortunate historical event. They don’t care for the Brits. A lot of our Congress yahoos are of Irish descent, not just Biden. I agree with them and have been following Brexit since the get-go. I still don’t completely understand why the British people voted for it.

    1. Iorwerth

      Here I am speaking from wet Wales and I certainly don’t understand it.
      For some reason the mainstream press has always been anti Europe, I suspect just because the owners are.
      Our government wants only well educated technicians to immigrate and also wants a highly educated native workforce which begs the question as to who does the low skilled jobs.

      1. Anonymous 2

        The press owners expect to be able to dictate policy to the UK politicians, which is easier if the UK is outside the EU. No scope now for a British Prime Minister to be able to say ‘ I would love to do that, Mr Murdoch, but sadly our obligations as members of the EU prevent that’.

        1. johny conspiranoid

          We only have Mr. Murdoch’s word for how many people buy his papers. They are on sale in every supermarket even though you rarely see anyone buying them.

    2. Count Zero

      As I said above, some of my ancestors also escaped the Irish famine and came to England in the 1840s and 50s, working in the coal mines and factories of Lancashire and Yorkshire. So you wouldn’t care for me since several generations later I am now, apparently, “a Brit.” But I am at least as Irish as you and many of your fellow Irish-Americans. I don’t, however, dress myself up in a spurious Disneyland nationalism begorra. Sentimentality and violence are common bedfellows.

      1. orlbucfan

        I have no quarrel with British folks. But, as I pointed out in my earlier comment, I know Irish-Americans who are very sensitive towards the British cos of the history between England and Ireland. I visited London and Oxford years ago, and was entranced by the history of the country. We don’t have that in the United States.

    3. delacaravanio

      I still don’t completely understand why the British people voted for it.

      Nobody does. One thing is clear, however: It was an English (and, to a lesser degree, a Welsh) phenomenon, rather than a British one. The Scots and Northern Irish voted heavily to remain.

      1. Count Zero

        England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not entities of equal weight. I wonder if knowing the relative population sizes might help get some perspective here:

        Uk population 2020: 67, 081, 234

        England: 56, 550, 138 or 84.3% of total
        Scotland: 5, 466, 000 or 8.2%
        Wales: 3, 169, 586 or 4.7%
        Northern Ireland: 1, 895, 510 or 2.8%

        Far far more people in England voted to remain in Europe than in Scotland and Northern Ireland added together.

        The population of London is greater than the total population of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland added together.

      2. Hayek's Heelbiter

        I still don’t completely understand why the British people voted for it.

        To everyone who can’t figure how why so many people voted for Brexit, how many former residents of Bradford, the East End, etc.(who watched their hoods – neighbour and liveli – disappear when Tony Blair opened the borders to cheap Eastern European labour) have you actually spoken to at length?
        I have occasionally and inadvertently emerged from my bubble, and boy, did I hear an earful! The people who felt betrayed by open borders are not the silent majority, but they are definitely the overlooked majority.
        According to the BBC, Eastern European HGV drivers who returned to their old countries find the offer of temporary UK visas risible. Apparently, during their UK sojourn, they became very British and took the words of “Rule Britannia” to heart, “Britons never, never shall be slaves.”

        1. nap

          “I still don’t completely understand why the British people voted for it.”

          Here’s an excellent analysis of why people voted for Brexit, written by a couple of academics in Canada at the time but still relevant five years later.

          (You could start on page 7 – The Verdict: Protest Against Neoliberal Britain)

  6. Dave in Austin

    The American negotiating style is to force deals that paper-over real issues but benefit American political constituencies

    The Good Friday Agreement is a good example. So is the American position on Kosovo (Kosovo can succeed; the Serb part of Bosnia can’t).

    In Bosnia we forced a deal that said “One country, two governments with a UN High Commissioner who can make any law he wants”. All backed up by the US Air Force and an EU subsidy..

    The iron inconsistency of Good Friday has come home to roost: 1) Northern Ireland will remain part of Great Britain; 2) That part of Great Britain must have no commercial border with another country- the Catholic republic of Ireland (because this will keep the Catholics in Northern Ireland from throwing bombs and Catholic voters in the US from voting Republicans); 3) Great Britain is in the EU commercial union so the border doesn’t matter. But what if they leave? “Don’t be ridiculous”; 4) In a moment of distraction , GB votes to leave the EU by roughly 51% to 49%.

    The Clinton administration gets good press; the two local adversaries get the Nobel Peace Prize; we all get 30 years of no bombings and no Cellblock H. I think it was Churchill who said “Jaw, jaw, jaw” is better that “war, war, war”. So maybe we shouldn’t complain.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      George Mitchell served as an emissary but he was not a member of the Clinton Administration. The deal is widely depicted as Tony Blair’s most important accomplishment as PM.

      And it’s been universally considered to be a success. It was Brexit that created a new set of issues and the UK is refusing to accept the least problematic solution, the so-called sea border.

      1. johny conspiranoid

        Surely there are ways for a state to collect its revenue that do not involve collecting it at a border, internal or external. Or is the bone of contention that the UK should not tax goods entering from the Irish Republic?

    2. Delacaravanio

      The American negotiating style is to force deals that paper-over real issues but benefit American political constituencies.

      But the Good Friday Agreement was not imposed on Northern Ireland by Uncle Sam. Instead, it was agreed by the various political groupings (with British, EU, Irish and US active support and facilitation) during torturous negotiations, and then put to referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

  7. Mike

    Methinks some of the opposition from the US to any retraction of Good Friday is a reaction to the poor job by the UK of screwing around with Russia over Skripal poisonings, spying, MH17, and all such propaganda work that the lapdog Brits were willing to do. These tactics have had very little positive result outside of propaganda wins among believable citzenry; economically, they’ve fallen short.

    Frankly, the world is not beating a path to British goods, and its second-tier economy contributes far less than it once did, except for financial chicanery. It was predictable that the US would demand much more of the Brits for a “deal”, just as we did during World War II when the miracle of Commonwealth colony disappearance was related to US demands upon Britain to cede resources and payment for goods delivered during the war. Pretty much in keeping with our demands upon Europe to pay reparations after WW I. We’ve been poking Britain in the eye for so long its become a yawning practice.

  8. David

    What I find incomprehensible about this is that Johnson served under May as Foreign Secretary. A very poor one, admittedly, but he can’t have failed to notice that British foreign policy aligns quite closely with that of the US, and the British take possible US reactions into account. So what was going on here? Where on earth were the Embassy?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      My only theory/explanation for this is that while they (i.e. the Brexiters and the people around Johnson) ‘knew’ there would be opposition from the US, they assumed it would be purely tokenism and so could be safely ignored. I’ve no idea what is going on behind the scenes but the media never reported the very obvious signalling from the US. I just don’t think they every took seriously the idea that the US would pull the lead.

  9. Mikeyjoe

    Before the GFA were the Troubles which no one wants to return. The Biden administration and many in Congress won’t let the British government do anything to jeopardize the GFA
    But the Border has always had controversy since the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

  10. Eric377

    Not sure why the UK doesn’t at least as a messaging position try to put this more on Ireland. As in: we are in favor of the open border with the Irish Republic and the Irish Republic no longer is. If the US actually is only interested in seeing that GFA is the fundamental border relation in Ireland, any pressure seems constructive so long as it advances GFA continuity. More of a power move would be to just wind down the internal customs regime and let Ireland decide if they really want a closed border. Right now, Ireland is kind of a free rider in all this but make it as much their problem and maybe everyone (except possibly a few folks in Brussels) get something that is okay. Let Brussels decide if the “sea border” needs to be between the continent and the Irish Republic.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      What about Brexit don’t you understand?

      The UK cannot have an open border with the Republic of Ireland and have Brexit. Brexit = borders.

      This is not a Republic of Ireland issue. It’s an EU issue. The UK is negotiating with the EU.

      And it is the UK that is trying to retrade a deal it negotiated and bragged about when no circumstances have changed.

    2. disillusionized

      Have you not been paying attention? The uk have done that constantly.
      Neither the eu nor the us is remotely interested in that piece of nonsense.

  11. Patrick Donnelly

    PIRA was hamstrung by CJHaughey, picked for the Brits by his Father in law, DeValera.
    Dev was Spanish Irish and an American. He was likely a Brit agent. He triggered the Dublin massacres, called the Easter Rising in 1916. He acted against orders. The eventual rebellion was less successful than hoped, probably as a result. He then split the new State into two parties, causing a civil war.
    Haughey was an accountant. He was allowed to act as a hero by being associated with the import of a container load of revolvers, seized bfore they were ever tested as working. He rose to lead the largest political party. He entered arrangements with the banks, especially the AIB. He got unlimited overdraft facilities. He became a millionaire many times over.
    PIRA again split from the main body…. this is a trait of Brit agents to cause splits.
    They acted aggressively to no avail, for decades, killing civilians and then soldiers. But never the British Establishment except for one bomb at Brighton at the Tory Conference. Eventually, one unit of PIRA went rogue and disobeyed direct standing orders and attacked the East End of London and Canary Wharf. Banks were damaged, one or two killed but a billion in damage at least. The Good Friday Agreement followed quickly, as despite stern Brit rhetoric to the contrary, there were always negotiations with PIRA.
    In the meantime the scheme to grow the Irsih banks prospered and so apparently did Ireland and its prime ministers. They even got my old employers, the Revenue Commissioners in on the act. Evaded taxes ended up in the banking system. The banks swore that this was agreed to by the Revenue Commissioners. This was facilitated by a whispering campaign to ensure that the money was safe in Ireland and that the ferry to Mann or the cheap flight to Cricklewood for a Brit bank account was unnecessary. This pot of gold eventually reached 2 Bn GBP. It was eventually collected by the Revenue Commissioners ….. after a Parliamentary enquiry 10 years after a whistleblower and newspaper reports.
    The friendly EU then allowed a special assist to the banks to grow them…. the Govt would give 25% on top of money deposited with the banks…. 5 years later the banks failed, having borrowed funds to support the balance sheet as reserves. Easily spotted by auditors but strangely, not!
    Reckless lending to the banks increased by ‘foreign’ bankers, betting that Ireland could make domestic properties increase annually in value by 25%.
    But the bond holders were never identified.
    Eventually the Finance minister decided to recommend that Ireland cover debts of 100,000,000,000 Euro, bailing out those who had fed the riotous behaviour at the punchbowl. Many senior civil servants, in on the scam, lost their shares.
    The Finance Minister became Prime Minister, sealing the deal and then lost the next election, strangely. He had a VERY VERY successful lecture circuit …. in the USA. Tim Geithner had publicly advised him to do the right thing to keep Ireland’s reputation.
    Corrupting a small country is easy.
    Making sure that profits are made by destroying the finance sector takes brains.
    Making sure that the music stops only when the bonds were held by others … priceless.
    The population of Ireland was 8Mn in 1840. England 10Mn in the same year. The population of Ireland has decreased ever since. No wonder there are Irish Americans, USA Argentina Canada etc.

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