Boris Johnson has dismissed the risk of retaliation from the European Union after his government announced plans to unilaterally rip-up the central elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. Foreign secretary Liz Truss told MPs she would introduce legislation within weeks to replace the measures agreed in the treaty with a system that would remove the EU's role.
“Our proposed solution would meet both our and the EU’s original objectives for the protocol. It would address the frictions in East-West trade, while protecting the EU single market and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” she said. “The challenge is that this solution requires a change in the protocol itself, as its current drafting prevents it from being implemented, but the EU’s mandate does not allow the protocol to be changed.”
The Bill would create a new green channel allowing all goods British suppliers say are destined only for Northern Ireland to enter from Britain without checks, with a red channel for goods that will move into the European single market. Goods made in Northern Ireland would no longer be required to comply with EU standards as long as they accord with British ones.
The protocol’s rules on VAT and state aid would be scrapped and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would no longer have any role in adjudicating disputes.
“We don’t want to nix it, we want to fix it and we will work with our EU partners to do it,” Mr Johnson said, dismissing the threat of trade sanctions from Brussels.
“I don’t think that is likely but what we have to fix is the problems with the Northern Ireland politics situation where you can’t get the Executive up and running right now. In the past we have done all sorts of things to fix that. We need to address the problems with the protocol.”
Labour's Stephen Doughty said the government was risking a trade war at a time when the British economy was fragile.
“It is Cornish fisherman, Co Down farmers and Scotch whisky makers who will lose out, holding back the economy while growth forecasts are already being revised down,” he said.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson described the foreign secretary's statement as "a good start" and said his party would take "a graduated and cautious approach" as the legislation progresses. But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said most people in Northern Ireland wanted to see the protocol working rather than seeking its removal.
“The foreign secretary has confirmed that she’s going to go against the majority, despite what she might say, the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland who support the protocol, by ripping up an international agreement called the Withdrawal Agreement,” he said. “It’s a very simple question: how can any international partner or how can any citizen in the north of Ireland ever trust this government again?”
Ms Truss said she would continue talking to the EU after introducing the legislation, adding that she had invited European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefcovic to talks in London.
The EU said it had “significant concerns” about the UK’s intention to introduce legislation to change the protocol, Mr Sefcovic said in a statement.
The EU also warned of potential EU action in response to Ms Truss’ announcement earlier on Tuesday.
“Should the UK decide to move ahead with a bill disapplying constitutive elements of the protocol as announced today by the UK government, the EU will need to respond with all measures at its disposal,” the statement read.
It raises the prospect of renewed legal action by the EU against Britain, and ultimately a potential trade war between the two sides with tariffs placed on goods.
“With political will and commitment, practical issues arising from the implementation of the protocol in Northern Ireland can be resolved,” the statement read, adding that the Commission “stands ready to continue playing its part”.
EU proposals already set out have the potential to resolve the issues raised about the protocol, it continued.
“The EU has shown understanding for the practical difficulties of implementing the protocol, demonstrating that solutions can be found within its framework,” the statement read, adding that “additional far-reaching and impactful bespoke arrangements” have been put forward to allow the flow of goods across the Irish Sea.
“The European Commission stands ready to continue discussions with the UK government.”
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the EU has been ”very flexible” in its approach but “this flexibility has not been reciprocated by the UK government and this is breeding mistrust in EU capitals.”
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney reacted by saying that the actions of the British government “contrary to the wishes of people and business in Northern Ireland”.
“I deeply regret the decision of the British government to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that will unilaterally disapply elements of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland,” Mr Coveney said in a statement.
“Such unilateral action in respect of an internationally binding agreement is damaging to trust and will serve only to make it more challenging to find solutions to the genuine concerns that people in Northern Ireland have about how the protocol is being implemented.”
He said that the British move “undermines political stability and confidence in Northern Ireland’s economy.”