Brexit is about to raise its contentious head again.

For months, governments in most countries in the world have been preoccupied with the coronavirus emergency.

But today, Ireland and the European Union will be reminded that Brexit has not gone away.

After Boris Johnson and his administration publish their plans to deal with the Northern Ireland protocol in the UK's Withdrawal Agreement, it may seem that the Brussels-London row over Brexit is getting closer.

Late last year, it seemed there was a breakthrough in the tortuous saga of EU/UK negotiations.

Helped by his relationship with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Boris Johnson struck a deal with Brussels and it helped him to win a convincing general election victory in December.

It seemed that a hard border on the island of Ireland had been avoided. The solution seemed to be some form of a border down the Irish Sea, that irked unionists, but recognised the unique politics on the island of Ireland.

But now comes the hard part - fleshing out how the British government intends to implement, in practical terms, the Northern Ireland Protocol element of its Withdrawal Agreement.

What Boris Johnson and his administration may see as perfectly plausible and workable proposals are likely to raise the hackles of the European Commission.

The proposals Boris Johnson's administration will publish today are unlikely to defuse Brussels’ concerns.

In a recently published document, the commission set out its position in very plain terms.

It said: "In the context of implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland remains the biggest challenge, considering the technical complexity and political sensitivity."

The commission listed a number of priorities, including "the introduction of customs procedures and formalities in Northern Ireland for all goods traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain".

Later in its document, it stated "all implementation measures that may require the creation of new facilities (such as new posts for the performance of official controls, or new customs offices) need to commence immediately to ensure that relevant facilities are operational on January 1st.

"Finally, discussions on the [European] Union presence in Northern Ireland need to be advanced as a matter of urgency as well. We need clarity on the administrative arrangements before we can recruit staff, organise the uptake of their functions, etc."

So where do such commission requirements sit with what the British government is likely to state later today?

The approach that senior members of the British government, such as Michael Gove, and its chief negotiator in Brussels, David Frost, articulated in recent times suggests the UK strategy may be:

  • No new physical customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland or the UK
  • No international border in the Irish Sea
  • No tariffs on internal UK trade
  • Unfettered access for NI goods going to the rest of the UK
  • The use of technology to resolve potentially problematic issues
  • Some expanded infrastructure at ports and airports to deal with agri-food goods only
  • No EU permanent presence in Northern Ireland in case this would give rise to the concept of joint controls

All of the signals coming from London in recent weeks suggest that, as of now, the British government remains in full steam ahead mode rather than prepared to move towards compromise, or deal exit date territory. The proposals Boris Johnson’s administration will publish today are unlikely to defuse Brussels’ concerns.

The heat of the issue is captured in the issue of Brussels expecting the British government to make provision for an EU Office in Northern Ireland and EU personnel with a function in trading arrangements. It would seem that London will not countenance "an EU official about the place".

(And yet years of watching Boris Johnson teaches one how he often leaves a thread that could someday become an escape rope. 'No permanent EU presence' is a phrase some senior British figures have used in recent times. Does this leave open the possibility of a 'temporary presence'?)

As the stalemate sits, the current British thinking envisages a situation of goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK, subject to only light touch scrutiny/regulation and no tariffs.

What, Brussels might wonder, would prevent them from flowing across a porous border and into the EU's Single Market?

It also leaves open the possibility of goods from the south, part of the EU, being moved northwards across the porous border, and able to mingle and travel with Northern Ireland goods, with "unfettered access to GB".

Smugglers would delight in the prospect, but the European Commission might take a different view.

Senior figures in the DUP are beginning to accept that even their Sinn Féin partners in government don't support EU requirements that would hinder the functioning of business in Northern Ireland.

But Brussels will have a bottom line of protecting its single market. That won't change, even if Boris Johnson insists on the UK's plans to leave the European Union at the end of this year, deal or no deal.