Somewhere in a locked drawer in Brussels is a document setting out the retaliatory action the EU could take if the UK unilaterally tore up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Here’s what could happen:
The EU is first likely to launch lengthy legal proceedings that could result in the UK being fined, but “these are quite slow so the UK Government might not see that as a major threat”, according to Jess Sargeant, senior researcher at the Institute for Government.
The “nuclear option” would be the EU terminating the trade deal with the UK and imposing tariffs on British exports to the Continent, Ms Sargeant said.
Anand Menon, director of the UK In A Changing Europe think tank, suggested that Brussels may even target measures to hurt Conservative-held Red Wall marginal constituencies, forcing their MPs to pressure Boris Johnson to back down.
Mr Menon told i: “The nearest parallel is what they did in retaliatory sanctions to the US under Trump.
“They imposed tariffs on goods that were coming from Republican-held states in a targeted manner.
“My guess, and it’s a guess, is there are probably some Red Wall Tory-held marginals that export stuff to the EU and they will slap tariffs on those, which will get those MPs saying ‘hang on a sec, you are wrecking our local economy’.”
He added: “They will do it to cause maximum political as well as economic pain.”
The imposition of tariffs could be imposed “quite quickly” in between nine to 12 months, Ms Sargeant said,
“That’s the more immediate threat but the most extreme response,” she added.
The EU could also ramp up checks at the border to snarl up Channel trade. Even if the UK does not respond with its own tariffs and checks, there could be shortages and price rises here.
This could quickly become politically unpalatable, especially at a time of rampant inflation, a cost of living crisis and a potential receession.
Mr Menon said: “I just wonder about the optics of things getting tougher at a time when they are already tough because of a political decision taken over Northern Ireland, whether that really is a vote winner.”
Excluding the UK from EU programmes
Brussels has already blocked the UK from its flagship Horizon research programme because it does not “trust” the Government due to its action on the Protocol.
It could take similar steps in other areas, for example data adequacy, that could harm the UK.
Joe Biden’s administration has been clear it wants a negotiated Protocol settlement and could pull even further away from a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal if the Government acts unilaterally.
The UK is also working to get America to lift tariffs on steel, which may be rejected by Washington DC.
Good Friday Agreement
The Protocol is hated by unionists but in Northern Ireland’s Assembly elections last week most people voted for parties that support the deal, Ms Sargeant said.
If the UK rips it up, she said “we’re going to see quite a strong reaction from the nationalist parties and Alliance Party which is now doing pretty well, which I think weakens the UK Government’s claim that it is doing this for peace and stability in Northern Ireland”.