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9th Jun 2023

UK threatens to scrap post-Brexit trade deal

  • British foreign secretary Liz Truss and EU commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič at an earlier meeting in Brussels (Photo: European Commission)
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The UK rejected the EU's proposals to solve the standoff over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, putting the two sides on a collision course with Britain threatening to suspend some of those rules next week.

Talks between the UK and EU are at a standstill over the post-Brexit trade rules.

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British foreign secretary Liz Truss and EU commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, who is in charge of the issue, will meet on Thursday (12 May), according to British senior cabinet minister Michael Gove.

The Northern Ireland protocol, which governs trade in the province, is part of the divorce deal signed by both the UK and the EU.

It aimed to preserve the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, protect the EU's single market, and avoid new borders on the island of Ireland — all at the same time.

The protocol, which came into force in January 2021, effectively created a customs border in the sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, irking unionists in Northern Ireland.

London has been wanting to reverse the agreement, saying the bureaucratic burden is overwhelming businesses, and has been threatening to rip up the trade deal.

Last October, the EU proposed steps to ease the paperwork burden and the checks required for goods on the border, offering to scrap 80 percent of Northern Ireland food checks and 50 percent of customs checks.

Truss said the proposals failed to address the core problem.

"Prices have risen, trade is being badly disrupted, and the people of Northern Ireland are subject to different laws and taxes than those over the Irish Sea," she said in a statement on Tuesday night, adding that it has threatened peace and security in the British province.

She said that the proposals would "worsen the current trading arrangements".

Truss also said the British government "will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found".

British media reported that prime minister Boris Johnson's government could legislate to scrap parts of the deal, and dump checks on goods next week.

Šefčovič on Tuesday warned in a statement that renegotiating the protocol is not an option.

"The EU remains open to such discussions. Only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action by the UK would only make our work on possible solutions more difficult," he said.

He called the protocol a cornerstone of the withdrawal agreement, which is an international agreement.

Ireland, Belgium and Germany have also urged Britain not to take matters into its own hands.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday that any unilateral move to unravel the protocol would have an effect beyond EU-UK relations.

"No one should unilaterally cancel, break or in any way attack the settlement we have agreed together," he said.

Northern Ireland vote

The conflict over the protocol was reignited by the elections in Northern Ireland and the refusal of the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party to enter a power-sharing executive until the issues over the protocol is resolved.

According to the power-sharing arrangements, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share the first minister and deputy first minister's post, which are equal positions and one cannot hold office without the other.

In last week's elections to the Stormont Northern Irish assembly, the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein, which accepts the protocol with an eye on Irish unification, emerged as the largest party for the first time.

The DUP, which fell to second place, has been a long-standing opponent of the protocol out of fear of loosening ties with London.

The DUP refused to confirm on Wednesday if it will support the election of a new speaker when the assembly meets on Friday. The assembly cannot function if a speaker is not elected.

The DUP's arm-twisting could help London strengthen its position in negotiations with the EU.

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