5 years on from the referendum, no end in sight for Brexit – POLITICO

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LONDON — Half a decade after the referendum that electrified British politics, Brexit just won’t go away.

The fifth anniversary of the vote to leave the European Union lands on Wednesday amid the prospect of an early snap election in Northern Ireland, a vote that could become a mini-poll on post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Getting Brexit done was Boris Johnson’s main goal when he became U.K. prime minister in 2019. In a relatively low-key statement for a famously exuberant leader, Johnson said Tuesday night: “The decision to leave the EU may now part of our history, but our clear mission is to utilise the freedoms it brings to shape a better future for our people.”

Other players in the Brexit saga are also choosing to mark the moment. The Best for Britain lobby group, which campaigned for a second Brexit referendum and now supports “the closest possible future relationship” with the EU, plans to project “messages of hope” onto buildings in the heart of Brussels on Wednesday night, alongside the names of citizens who voted to stay in the EU or now regret voting Leave.

But if there’s one place where the anniversary will be most acutely felt, it is in Northern Ireland. There unionists continue to bitterly oppose the Northern Ireland protocol, post-Brexit trading arrangements which place the region within both the U.K. and the EU internal markets, at the expense of checks on goods arriving there from Britain.

The resignation of the anti-protocol Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) leader Edwin Poots after just three weeks at the helm increases the chances of a Brexit-dominated snap election for the Northern Ireland Assembly this fall — months before the expected date of May 2022.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the veteran DUP politician who is set to be installed as the party’s new leader unopposed this weekend after nominations for the position closed Tuesday, has vowed to oppose the post-Brexit checks carried out between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, warned any early election could become a “referendum” on the Northern Ireland protocol. He fears an election campaign in Northern Ireland this summer, following a tense annual protestant marching season on July 12, would only create fresh instability.

“The idea that we introduce an election in the middle of all of that, in the short term, which in some ways would be a referendum on the protocol and some of the issues of division we have seen, means that the election would be based on polarization and division as opposed to focusing on policy change and governance to deal with problems in Northern Ireland,” Coveney told RTÉ last week.

The DUP and other unionist parties have pledged to ditch the protocol at the earliest opportunity. Unionists aim to win enough seats at Stormont to be able to withdraw the Northern Ireland Assembly’s support for the post-Brexit arrangement at a consent vote provided for in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (due by December 2024 at the latest.) Yet Sinn Féin, the republican party that supports the Northern Ireland protocol as a necessary solution to the border issues created by Brexit, is polling strongly — a fact that might make the DUP hesitate rather than pushing for an early poll.

Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said that in any looming election, the people of Northern Ireland are likely to back a candidate that supports their views on the protocol. That’s borne out by a survey she carried out in March together with colleague David Phinnemore.

“Everybody in Northern Ireland — whether they are Leavers or Remainers, unionists or nationalists — feel that they’ve been hard done by Brexit and they also think that the other community has done better than they have,” she said. “So unionists not just think that they have been betrayed by the British government with the protocol but also that nationalists have benefited from it — i.e. that the all-Ireland economy is protected to some degree.”

Yet despite some unionist assembly members portraying the 2024 consent vote as an opportunity to get rid of the protocol, in reality the vote will only affect articles 5-10 of the arrangement. These set out the new controls in Northern Ireland ports and the trade of wholesale electricity across the island of Ireland. If the Assembly withdraws its consent for this part of the protocol, the EU and the U.K. government will then have two years to negotiate new trade arrangements — all of which sounds strikingly familiar.

“We would in essence be back to the tricky problem that dogged the Brexit negotiations,” Hayward said.

Esther Webber contributed reporting.

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