The UK wants to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the EU, mostly because of Northern Ireland's current (and future) situation. The EU immediately rejected the offer.

My question is: Why does Boris Johnson demand to renegotiate the Brexit deal?

From the EU side, I guess that there are very few reasons to accept:

  • The deal took so much pain to be accepted by both parties.
  • It came into force less than one year ago (and you probably do not want to renegotiate too often).
  • Boris Johnson himself (not a previous Prime Minister) signed the deal.
  • The cause of the renegotiation could be considered a "domestic problem" by the EU.
  • There is no clear direct benefit for the EU (except helping an economical and political partner).

Part of the reason is that Boris Johnson is currently in trouble, and would like to find an issue by putting pressure on the EU, although they are not expected to accept.

Is it a way to find a scapegoat if the situation turns bad in Northern Ireland?

Moreover, this demand seems so awkward to me (claiming that a deal you took years to negotiate, and just signed, is inapplicable) that I think there is something that I am missing.

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    Without some perspective from which to answer specified, this question is "primarily opinion-based"... in my opinion. Johnson's critics surely have a different answer to this question than Johnson's government has. Jul 22, 2021 at 19:41
  • @Fizz, I am not sure, since I have 3 interesting, non opinion based, answers to my (poorly phrased, I confess) question. By the way, I do not which one to choose, since each one presents one part of the answer. Jul 23, 2021 at 6:37
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    "enforced less than one year ago" - given the grace period for many imports has been extended recently enforced is not the word I would use.
    – Jontia
    Jul 23, 2021 at 13:14
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    @Jontia: I am no native speaker, and I do not know how things are going in the UK. Please feel free to correct. Could "enacted" be more appropriate? Jul 23, 2021 at 13:19
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    "The UK wants to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the EU, mostly because of Northern Ireland's current (and future) situation. [...] Why does Boris Johnson demand to renegotiate the Brexit deal?" You seem to know why. Are you actually asking why Johnson signed an agreement that he didn't want, or which foreseeably could not be implemented? Jul 23, 2021 at 13:45

4 Answers 4


Brexit recreated/uncovered problems which the EU membership of Ireland and the UK had allowed to recede. If there are no hard borders, then people and goods can travel from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland (NI), from there to the Republic of Ireland (RoI), and from there to the rest of the EU.

  • The Brexiteers wanted to "take back control" of the UK borders. That's mostly been about immigration, but also about the right to set their own, independent regulatory policies. It was obvious to almost everyone that regulatory difference would require a hard border somewhere along that route.
  • Many British citizens in NI and in other parts of the United Kingdom insist that there should be no hard border between the rest of the UK and NI.
  • The division of Ireland has caused long and bitter conflict. For the last half millennium there have been wars, rebellions, revolutions, and terrorist campaigns. These had been resolved, in part, by allowing the importance of borders within Ireland to recede. That was relatively easy as long as both the RoI and the UK were EU members. Many Irish (both in the RoI and NI) insist that there should be no hard border between NI and the RoI.
  • The Republic of Ireland never wanted a Brexit, and they want to remain EU members. So they want no hard border between the RoI and the rest of the EU.

To get Brexit done the Brexiteers agreed to place the hard border which they had demanded between the rest of the UK and NI. They were not very happy with that, and there were recriminations all the way. Now that the problems with this "solution" have become obvious, they want to move the hard border elsewhere.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Jul 27, 2021 at 0:46

The problem is the Brexit Trilemma.

From Wikipedia:

Following the Brexit referendum, the first May government decided that not only should the United Kingdom leave the European Union but also that it should leave the European Union Customs Union and the European Single Market. This meant that a customs and regulatory border would arise between the UK and the EU. Whilst the sea border between Great Britain and continental Europe was expected to present manageable challenges, the UK/EU border in Ireland was recognised as having rather more intractable issues. These were summarised in what became known as the Brexit Trilemma, because of three competing objectives: no hard border on the island; no customs border in the Irish Sea; and no British participation in the European Single Market and the European Union Customs Union. It is not possible to have all three.

The May government spent three years trying to resolve this but could not get the agreement of the Commons. Eventually, Theresa May was succeeded by Boris Johnson who secured a majority for a 'hard' Brexit which included a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain (although Johnson denied this even though he knowingly signed up to it)

By the time the agreement was made, the officials and people of both the EU and UK were so sick of the whole process, they wanted to 'get Brexit done' and forget about the consequences.

As a result of the Protocol there have been customs checks, paperwork and expenses that some GB companies have found so onerous that they no-longer supply goods to Northern Ireland. The current arrangements are a temporary, so-called 'light touch' regulation, this will change to more stringent checks in September 2021 and more GB businesses are expected to limit their business in Northern Ireland.

Needless to say, the Unionists in Ulster, and those in the Conservative (and Unionist) party, find all this unacceptable and would like to negotiate an alternative with the EU.

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    I'll point out that there is one way for the trilemma to be solved that the Wikipedia article isn't even considering: the annexation of the Republic of Ireland.
    – nick012000
    Jul 23, 2021 at 9:35
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    @nick012000 technically, the abolishment of the Single Market/European Customs Union would also suffice. But that is just as unlikely.
    – Chieron
    Jul 23, 2021 at 9:59
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    @nick012000, technically I guess the UK could declare war on ROI, though that would be like getting rid of the need to fix the piping of your house by burning down the whole block. Plus I could see some problems with that plan, both ones internal to the UK, and ones coming from the EU (or even the US or foreign countries (probably not UN though, since UK is a permanent member of the security council)).
    – ilkkachu
    Jul 23, 2021 at 10:12
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    @nick012000 "not trolling" : that's pretty hard to believe, honestly. You might as well propose to nuke the whole UK from orbit, just to be sure. Jul 23, 2021 at 15:54
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    @nick012000 For the record, EU states have a mutual defense pact (article 42(7) of the treaty of Lisbon), so in that case the UK would be basically declaring war to the whole of the EU. I don't know what would happen afterwards, mainly because this idea is insane to begin with - the UK does not have the military capabilities to keep an occupation force on a country the size of Ireland... Jul 23, 2021 at 18:04

The argument appears to boil down to: the situation under the current Protocol is unsustainable, the British government feels that it would be entitled to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol, allowing it to unilaterally take action, but would prefer to proceed bilaterally with the EU to come to an agreement which both sides can be satisfied with.

The government's position on the renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol was set out in a statement made simultaneously in the House of Lords by Minister of State Lord Frost and in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis.

The main argument presented in the statement is that the negotiations on the agreement took place without true knowledge of "what the real-world impacts of those decisions on the ground would be", which the statement notes include the need for half-a-billion pounds to be invested in implementing the agreement, and knock-on effects on the supply of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Another argument presented by the government is that the existing procedures within the protocol have been exhausted - the statement notes that "avenues for progress have been identified in certain areas but, overall, those discussions have not got to the heart of the problem". The government, however, states that it is unwilling to use the provisions of Article 16 of the Protocol - which allows the UK and the EU to take appropriate safeguard measures in the case of "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade" despite arguing that "it is clear that the circumstances exist to justify [its] use". It argues instead that rather than have the relationship between the UK and the EU be defined by legal challenges and power struggles over Northern Ireland, it is more constructive to renegotiate the agreement to the benefit of both parties.

Full details of the government's position are set out in the Command Paper entitled Northern Ireland Protocol: the way forward. The foreword by the Prime Minister sets out similar arguments made in the statement made in parliament, but section six; "Next Steps" is also quite digestible - the argument is presented that the UK has a responsibility to Northern Ireland as a co-signatory of the Good Friday agreement, and it is also recognised that there is a desire within the EU for the peace process in NI to be supported. The paper argues that the best way to ensure that this continues to be the case is through renegotiation of the Protocol;

The best way to do this is through finding new and durable arrangements agreed by the UK and the EU together, in which there is a shared ongoing interest in their success. This will best serve businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland; and provide the strongest platform for the productive long-term relationship between the UK and EU that we all want.

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    Especially the use of Article 16, which can be used as key to force the EU to renegotiate. Jul 22, 2021 at 15:37
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    @unamourdeswann, Johnson cannot "force" anything except for a hard brexit. Which few Brits want, except for hardline Brexiteers.
    – o.m.
    Jul 22, 2021 at 15:44
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    @unamourdeswann I suspect the EU would prefer a hard Brexit (especially a unilateral one which is clearly the UK's fault) to a reopening of the discussion. They would prefer the status quo to both, of course, but the Brexit negotiations have been a huge time sink for the EU, and they are in no hurry to waste any more time on that. Jul 22, 2021 at 17:36
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    Despite claims to the contrary, even Blind Freddie could see "what the real-world impacts of those decisions on the ground would be".
    – Mick
    Jul 23, 2021 at 9:49
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    It's unlikely that invoking article 16 would hold up in court, as the unsustainability is only of a political nature, not humanitarian. Nor is there a sudden emergency, only the sudden realization by the UK government that they can't weasel out of the customs checks after signing the agreement into law.
    – Cyrus
    Jul 23, 2021 at 13:08

The answer to this question dates back to 2019. Theresa May's government rejected the current solution, a border in the Irish Sea, and instead proposed a "backstop" that would keep the entire UK aligned with EU rules until a better solution could be found.

That proposal was soundly rejected by the UK Parliament, with both Tory and opposition MPs voting against it in large numbers. May resigned as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson won the leadership selection process.

Johnson was in need of a way to deliver brexit. He made several attempts to force the issue, but was thwarted by rebels in his own party and opposition MPs, eventually leading to the 2019 General Election. Johnson ran his election campaign on the basis of "getting brexit done" and his "oven-read deal" which included accepting customs checks, with oversight by the EU, on goods travelling between the mainland UK and Northern Ireland.

At the time Johnson lied repeatedly about the nature of the deal, claiming that there would be no customs checks and telling business owners (in a leaked video) to call him personally if they experienced any additional paperwork. Tory MPs who refused to support it were purged from the party, to ensure a majority who would vote the deal through despite concerns that were born out in time.

In 2020 the government began to create customs checking infrastructure, exposing Johnson's lie but promising that it would create little burden. Immediately when checks started in January 2021 problems became apparent and continued to get worse over time. Pressure grew on Johnson's government to do something, but due to the nature of the agreement there was little that could be done.

So essentially the government wants to renegotiate the deal because it only signed it in order to win the 2019 election, and not because it realistically thought it might actually work.


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