16th Aug 2022

UK sets out plan to scrap post-Brexit deal over Northern Ireland

  • In Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum, keeping the border with the republic of Ireland has been a priority (Photo: EUobserver)
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Britain has set out plans to override some of the post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, making it possible to scrap parts of the agreement, while citing instability in the region and overburdening bureaucracy.

Under the draft legislation unveiled Monday (13 June), the UK changes include introducing a "green lane" for goods moving from Great Britain only to Northern Ireland.

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The draft bill also allows ministers to suspend parts of the deal, it brings Northern Ireland's tax policies into line with the rest of the UK. Crucially, the legislation would also end the role of the European Court of Justice as the sole arbiter of the protocol.

The draft bill could take a year or year-and-a-half to pass in the Westminster parliament.

"It is with significant concern that we take note of today's decision by the UK government to table legislation disapplying core elements of the protocol," EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič said in response to the bill, adding that "unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust".

British foreign minister Liz Truss told Šefčovič on Monday morning that the bloc must be willing to change post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.

"Spoke to [EU Commission] vice-president Maroš Šefčovič to discuss the legislation we are announcing today to fix the problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol and restore political stability," Truss said on Twitter.

"Our preference is a negotiated solution, but EU must be willing to change the protocol itself."

The EU has repeatedly ruled out renegotiating the protocol which was agreed to by the government of prime minister Boris Johnson, but it is flexible on implementation.

The bloc has also criticised London for taking unilateral actions, arguing it leads to instability.

Irish prime minister Micheál Martin described London's decision as a "low point", which was "very regrettable".

"Announcing the unilateral breaching of an international agreement is pretty serious stuff and can't be just put aside," Martin said.

"It goes to the heart of trust and the EU needs a trusted partner to negotiate with," he added.

Johnson has argued that the changes to the protocol are "relatively trivial" steps were needed to improve trade and simplify bureaucracy.

Šefčovič said the commission will now consider continuing the EU legal probes launched against the UK government in 2021 over previous issues.

The UK has already unilaterally decided not to implement parts of the agreement, such as waiving rules for super markets, and checks on cold meat.

The EU could trigger new legal proceedings over the UK government's failure to implement parts of the protocol, Šefčovič added.

As a countermeasure, the EU could also introduce tariffs on British goods, or even suspend the entire EU-UK trade agreement.

The EU might also make cooperation hard on different issues with the UK, such as migration, financial services, or participation in the EU's €96bn Horizon research programme.

Johnson said that any talk of a retaliatory trade war by the EU would be a "gross, gross overreaction".

Break-up fears

The protocol was agreed as part of the EU-UK withdraw agreement, signed by the UK in January 2020, in an effort to maintain peace in Northern Ireland where the 1998 Good Friday agreement ended decades of sectarian violence.

As a result of Brexit, the deal introduced customs check on the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, to keep the land border free and invisible between the province and the republic of Ireland.

The EU has proposed last October to make changes to cut red tape but the UK rejected those proposals and called for a renegotiation.

Brexit and the protocol have also heightened tensions on Northern Ireland, with unionist communities fearing ties with the UK are loosening.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won the second-most seats in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections for first time after traditionally winning the most seats, argues that the protocol creates a divide and could lead to the break-up of the UK.

The DUP has been refusing to set up a new power-sharing executive with the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin, which has won the most seats and accepts the protocol.

The DUP wants the protocol to change before joining the power-sharing government.

On Monday, a majority members of the assembly have signed an open letter to Johnson saying that they reject "in the strongest possible terms" his "reckless" Northern Ireland protocol bill, the Guardian reported.

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"It is perfectly reasonable to look for ways to improve the operation of the protocol, but unfortunately what we have seen are bad-faith efforts to undermine a treaty freely entered into," Irish premier Michael Martin told MEPs.


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British foreign secretary Liz Truss said the UK has "no choice but to act" on the Northern Ireland protocol governing post-Brexit trade during a call with EU Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič — who warned unilateral action was "simply not acceptable".

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