Britain, EU set for tense showdown over Northern Ireland trade rules

·3-min read

After a months-long stalemate between London and Brussels, Britain on Monday set out new legislation amending the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland – a move the EU has warned is in breach of international law.

The bill overrides a treaty governing trade rules and the movement of goods through Northern Ireland, which serves as the only land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, the deal ensures the region is kept under EU trade rules so that trucks carrying goods don't face checkpoints when they travel to the Republic of Ireland, an EU country.

Given Northern Ireland’s troubled political history, the protocol was agreed as a way to avoid imposing an illegal border on the island of Ireland that would violate the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

By making Northern Ireland a de facto part of the European single market, the treaty also acted as a safeguard for that market.

Sectarian flare up

However because it forced a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – in the Irish Sea – pro-British unionists in the province complained their place within the UK was being diminished.

The main unionist party, the DUP, has refused to take part in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government with nationalists Sinn Féin until British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bill becomes law.

Sinn Féin, the political wing of the now disbanded Irish Republican Army, argues the DUP is holding the political future of the province to ransom – with the dispute stoking real fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Moves to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol – signed by Johnson’s own government – have been met with dismay in the EU, which has warned of retaliation.

In a Twitter post Monday, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney warned the UK's plan would "deliberately ratchet up tension with an EU seeking compromise".

Coveney had been briefed about the legislation earlier Monday during a phonecall from British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

A spokesperson said Coveney had told Truss that "publishing legislation that would breach the UK's commitments under international law, the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol is deeply damaging to relationships on these islands and between the UK and EU".

Britain's plan was described as a "particular low point" given that London had not engaged in negotiations with the EU "in any meaningful way since February".

'Trivial adjustments'

However Johnson quickly rejected the idea the legislation broke international law, saying it involved nothing more than a “trivial set of adjustments”.

“One community feels very, very estranged from the way things are operating, very alienated,” he told LBC Radio Monday. “We’ve just got to fix that. It is relatively simple to do it. It’s a bureaucratic change that needs to be made.”

In a nutshell, Johnson wants to introduce a system that would see goods to remain in the UK pass through a "new green channel", freeing them from administrative procedures.

Goods destined for the EU, meanwhile, would remain subject to all the checks and controls applied under EU law.

On top of that the bill – which could take a year to pass – seeks to alter tax rules and to end the role of the European Court of Justice as sole arbiter for Northern Ireland Protocol issues.

The move, which comes as the UK faces its toughest economic conditions in decades with inflation forecast to hit 10 percent, risks triggering a trade dispute with EU.

Johnson has said any talk by Brussels of a retaliatory trade war would be a "gross, gross overreaction".

The United States, meanwhile, has warned there would be no discussion on a potential US-UK trade deal if Britain were to scrap the protocol.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting