EU warns London protocol Bill could endanger wider trade deal

Barely concealed anger in Dublin, as Coveney challenges Johnson’s claim that legislation is ‘no big deal’

The European Commission has warned the UK government that its actions on the Northern Ireland protocol could undermine the entire trade agreement between the EU and the UK.

In its response to legislation that would unilaterally cancel parts of the protocol agreed between the UK and the EU in 2019, the commission said it would be likely to restart a stalled legal action against the UK government, and could also initiate a separate new enforcement action against the UK.

But it was the warning from commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic that the unilateral action by the UK government to set aside aspects of the protocol “undermines the trust that is necessary for bilateral EU-UK co-operation within the framework of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement” that is likely to cause more alarm in London.

It raises the prospect of the fraying of the agreement between the EU and UK, which provides for zero-tariff trade, and will fuel fears of an eventual trade war between the blocs if relations continue to deteriorate.


The reaction in Dublin to the publication of the legislation was one of barely concealed anger. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had a terse morning phone call with UK foreign secretary Liz Truss in which he told her the Irish Government regarded the actions of the UK as being in breach of international law.

Later, after UK prime minister Boris Johnson said that the publication of the legislation was “not a big deal”, Mr Coveney told reporters in Dublin: “This is a big deal, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t.”

Breach of trust

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that unilaterally overriding the Northern Ireland protocol was a “very serious issue because it goes to the heart of the issue of trust”.

“For a country like the United Kingdom to renege on an international treaty is something that does present a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries, like ourselves, the UK, and all across Europe, is that we honour international agreements that we enter into,” he said.

But Mr Johnson’s government said it had no alternative to breaking its treaty with the EU in order to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Ms Truss said the legislation was a reasonable, practical solution that would safeguard the EU single market and ensure there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland

“We are ready to deliver this through talks with the EU. But we can only make progress through negotiations if the EU are willing to change the protocol itself — at the moment they aren’t. In the meantime the serious situation in Northern Ireland means we cannot afford to allow the situation to drift,” she said.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill gives UK ministers the power to introduce a green channel with no checks for goods from Britain destined to remain in Northern Ireland, and a red channel applying EU checks to goods that will move onwards across the Border. A dual regulation system would allow goods in the North to comply with either EU or British regulations.

It also gives ministers the power to override almost every other part of the protocol if they determine they are causing political or economic disruption. The only elements that cannot be changed are the protocol’s protection of the Common Travel Area, North-South co-operation and human rights in Northern Ireland.

None of the changes will come into effect automatically if the Bill becomes law, and the protocol will continue to be implemented as it is now until ministers choose to exercise their power to override it.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times