The European Union will not agree to renegotiate the protocol on Northern Ireland, the European Commission has said after Britain demanded changes to the post-Brexit arrangements.
The deal to keep the North broadly in line with the single market in order to avoid a border with the Republic has entailed some checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, creating friction for businesses and angering some unionists.
Brexit minister David Frost told the Westminster parliament "we cannot go on as we are" on Wednesday and produced a paper calling for "significant change" including a "standstill period" to maintain current grace periods and freeze legal action by the Commission.
In a statement, European Commission vice president Maroš Šefcovic recalled that the protocol was a “joint solution” found with prime minister Boris Johnson and Lord Frost, and that it had been ratified by the UK parliament.
“Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance.”
He added that the EU last month laid out a package of measures to ease the implementation of the protocol, including tweaks to EU rules to ensure the long-term supply of medicines from Britain to Ireland.
“We take note of the statement made by Lord Frost today. We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today,” Mr Šefcovic said.
“We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol.”
In Dublin, the Government said it would study the UK proposals but emphasised that any solutions to the difficulties outlined by the British government “must take place within the framework of the protocol and the principles that underpin it.”
In a cautious response to the British paper, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, said Dublin would “analyse” it closely, together with EU colleagues.
Speaking after a cabinet meeting at Dublin Castle Taoiseach Micheál Martin took an optimistic view, saying that the proposals showed the British wished to find a negotiated solution.
“The British government, as they set out today formally, are willing to give this significant engagement over the coming months,” Mr Martin said.
“Our sense from the European Union is that it has always been willing to engage in a positive way. There has to be engagement from both sides. The EU stands ready to engage with the UK in relation to these issues. That’s where it rests right now.”
Privately, Government sources were unsurprised by the British initiative and regard the proposals as going far beyond an effort to deal with aspects of the protocol’s implementation. One initial view was that the British were seeking a rewriting of the protocol to get concessions for the UK that it could not secure in the original negotiations.
Irish officials also pointed to the need for the UK to establish a greater level of trust with the EU if negotiations were to find a way around the current problems – something that is unlikely while the British government was seeking to go back on the agreement.
Officials also pointed to the British threat to activate article 16 of the protocol – which allows for emergency suspension – as a poor basis for trust.
There is little optimism in Dublin that talks over the coming weeks will produce any agreement. Instead, Dublin expects tensions to rise in September as the deadline for the ending of the current grace period approaches.
The Biden administration reiterated calls for the UK and the EU to “negotiate within existing mechanisms” on the protocol.
Speaking in Washington, US state department spokesman Ned Price said that “we do and we have encouraged all parties to prioritise political and economic stability in Northern Ireland in the context of these discussions”.
Asked about the possible impact of Wednesday’s decision on a future UK-US trade deal, Mr Price said he was “not going to entertain hypotheticals, what might happen. Right now we are focused on what is happening between the parties,” emphasizing that the US would encourage parties to negotiate within existing mechanisms.
Reacting to the proposals from London, Congressman Brendan Boyle, who co-chairs the EU caucus on Capitol Hill, said that the proposal by the British government would further destabilise Northern Ireland.
“This British government negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol, agreed to it, and its parliament voted for it,” he said.
“I am gratified that a strong bipartisan majority in Congress, as well as the Biden administration, continue to support the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, which includes no hard border on the island of Ireland.”
In a statement, Richard Neal, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee which oversees trade deals in congress, noted that the Northern Ireland protocol was negotiated to facilitate post-Brexit trade while protecting the peace and prosperity established by the Good Friday Agreement.
He said: “I strongly encourage the UK and the EU to work together in a flexible and pragmatic manner in an effort to improve implementation of the protocol and to make it work more effectively for all affected parties.”