LONDON — Northern Ireland could lose access to the EU’s single market for goods if the U.K. walks away from post-Brexit rules governing trade with the region, the European Commission warned.
A long-running row between Brussels and London over the Northern Ireland protocol escalated Thursday as the U.K. made clear it is prepared to unilaterally ignore parts of the set-up — and Brussels cautioned such a move could come with a heavy price-tag for the region.
Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič warned twice over the span of a few hours that the British government’s compliance with the protocol is a precondition for the special status allowing Northern Ireland to be both part of the EU single market and the U.K.’s own internal market after Brexit.
However, Šefčovič did not explain how a potential exit of Northern Ireland from the EU single market could be implemented, given the U.K.-Irish commitment not to impose a land border between Northern Ireland and the neighboring Republic of Ireland.
Šefčovič’s first warning shot came Thursday morning, following a phone call with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss that saw the U.K. side accuse Brussels of failing to show “flexibility” in the face of problems with the way the protocol is working.
Unilateral action against the protocol will, Šefčovič said, not only destroy trust between the EU and the U.K. and damage stability in Northern Ireland, but “also undermine the conditions which are essential for Northern Ireland to continue to have access to the EU single market for goods.”
“Unilateral action, effectively disapplying an international agreement such as the protocol, is simply not acceptable,” he said.
He doubled down on that message in an address to the EU-U.K. Parliamentary Partnership Assembly in Brussels later Thursday.
The EU’s Brexit point-man criticized the U.K.’s demand to rewrite parts of the protocol to remove the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) as final arbiter of disputes concerning Northern Ireland. The CJEU is a fundamental institution underpinning the EU’s single market.
“If you don’t agree with that, then there’s a huge question mark over the access of the Northern Ireland to the single market,” Šefčovič told assembled lawmakers. “This is a very serious issue.”
Brussels set out plans last year to try to smooth the operation of the protocol, which was negotiated as part of the U.K.’s exit from the EU and keeps Northern Ireland in the bloc’s single market for goods.
The arrangement has proven deeply unpopular with unionists in Northern Ireland, who argue it cuts off the region from the rest of the U.K. by introducing burdensome checks on some goods traded across the Irish Sea.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to join the power-sharing government there unless the arrangement is shelved.
Speaking in his home constituency of Lagan Valley, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Thursday: “I have spoken about decisive action. For me, tinkering around the edges is not the answer. The answer is removing the Irish Sea border and removing the impediments to trade within the United Kingdom.”
There are mounting expectations that the U.K. may unveil a bill as early as next week giving British ministers the power to impose their own trade rules, although the government is keeping its cards close to its chest.
Asked if the U.K. is looking to go ahead with this plan, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “It’s clear that the unionist community won’t accept the protocol. That’s, I’m afraid, obvious from what has happened — we’ve got to fix it, and we’ll have to.”
Also addressing the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly in Brussels Thursday, U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Ellis insisted his country does not want to “rip up the protocol” but make it work “as it was intended to,” by protecting the Good Friday Agreement securing peace in Northern Ireland “above all.”
“The people of Northern Ireland must be able to benefit from the same decisions on taxation and spending as the rest of the United Kingdom,” Ellis said.
Šefčovič, who listened on in silence, sounded pessimistic about the U.K. government’s intentions, lamenting London’s lack of engagement with EU proposals. He recalled that a few months ago the two sides failed to issue a joint statement on the latest round of talks over the protocol because Britain didn’t want to include the word “implementation.”
“Honesty about what the U.K. signed up to is needed,” Šefčovič told the assembly.
Shawn Pogatchnik contributed reporting.