EU prepares retaliatory options if Britain advances protocol Bill

EU ambassadors call for range of options to be ready if UK over-rides post-Brexit deal

The European Union is preparing options to respond if the British government goes ahead with plans to unilaterally override Northern Ireland's post-Brexit arrangements.

Member state ambassadors have called for action to be ready if London chooses to escalate a row that has plunged the close trading partners back into acrimony after months of cooperation over the war in Ukraine.

Within the European Commission, officials have been preparing options both for a potential agreement with London to ease the flow of goods into Northern Ireland, and alternatively for how to respond if the government of British prime minister Boris Johnson chooses to abandon talks and breach the international treaty.

EU ambassadors called for a range of options to be ready when they discussed the issue this week, with one diplomat saying the approach should be like Nato’s “flexible response” doctrine that allows for each hostile action to be met with a proportional reaction.

The EU is hoping for a “rational, sensible conversation” about how to resolve some of the issues surrounding the Protocol, but “will respond should the UK resort to unilateral action”, another EU diplomat told The Irish Times.

“The idea is a phased and graduated approach to that response,” the diplomat said.

"The EU is not going to give cause for escalation, but we're not going to sit back and let the UK unilaterally break up an international agreement that Johnson not just signed, but asked for."

Options include resuming legal action and seeking redress under a dispute settlement structure laid out under the trade agreement signed with Britain in 2020. If all else fails it ultimately allows for the aggrieved side to take retaliatory action by placing tariffs on goods.

Britain's announcement of plans to introduce a bill to override an agreement reached in 2019 has caused significant frustration in Brussels, but EU member states have stressed that they will continue to take a unified approach to the issue and stand with Ireland.

‘Same page’

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen discussed the issue in a phone call with Micheál Martin on Thursday.

“The EU and Ireland are on the same page: international agreements cannot be disapplied unilaterally,” she said afterwards in a Tweet.

“The UK needs to work with us to find joint, workable solutions.”

It came after France's European affairs minister Clement Beaune held a phone call with his Irish counterpart Thomas Byrne, declaring afterwards that "in the face of new British provocations on the Northern Irish protocol, we will remain united and firm, to defend peace, stability and respect for the agreements signed".

Officials have publicly expressed their exasperation. “Let’s just all threaten each other with breaking international law. Makes for really good partnerships,” a spokesman for Germany’s embassy to the EU wrote on Twitter earlier this week.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is to meet British foreign secretary Liz Truss in Turin on Friday on the sidelines of a Council of Europe annual session, at which the 46 member states will discuss their response to the war in Ukraine.

Ireland takes up the presidency of the Council of Europe on Friday for a six-month term, and plans to prioritise human rights, youth and democratic engagement, and promoting a welcoming and inclusive Europe.