The U.K. will unveil its “next steps” on the Northern Ireland protocol “in the coming days,” Boris Johnson said, as his government heads for a fresh clash with the European Union over post-Brexit trading rules.
The British prime minister travels to Belfast Monday for talks on restoring a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, currently on hold as the U.K. region’s Democratic Unionist Party demands action on a Brexit protocol they argue is damaging and needs an overhaul.
The U.K. negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU when it left the bloc. It introduces customs and sanitary controls on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland’s ports to avoid those checks taking place on Northern Ireland’s land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was seen as a potential threat to peace on the island of Ireland.
In a Belfast Telegraph editorial issued on the eve of his trip, Johnson argued that the protocol had “not been adapted to reflect the realities” of the Brexit trade agreement signed between the U.K. and the EU since then, and cited “a global pandemic and a European war which has created a cost of living crisis on a scale not seen for half a century.”
The U.K. contends that the European Commission’s offer to reform the protocol — set out last October — fails to sufficiently reduce burdens on traders. Brussels has countered that those proposals marked a starting point for talks and has warned of far-reaching consequences for Northern Ireland if Britain acts unilaterally to suspend the protocol, something allowed under the agreement in certain circumstances but a move that could risk retaliation from the EU.
While Johnson insisted the U.K. would “always keep the door wide open to genuine dialogue” on the protocol, and would “continue to protect the [EU] single market,” he warned that the U.K. government would face a “necessity to act” if the bloc doesn’t change its position.
“The government has a responsibility to provide assurance that the consumers, citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland are protected in the long-term,” Johnson wrote. “We will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to parliament in the coming days.”
‘Keep on talking’
Johnson’s trip comes amid U.K. media reports that 10 Downing Street is at odds with the Foreign Office, led by Liz Truss, over how hard to push in any confrontation with the EU. The U.K. is readying domestic legislation that could grant ministers the power to ignore parts of the protocol, but a senior government official told the Sunday Times that while Britain wanted “a weapon on the table, we don’t want to use it.”
They added: “It’s like the nuclear deterrent. The PM does not want to use nuclear weapons, whatever the knuckleheads tell him.”
A Foreign Office official said Sunday that nothing had yet been decided. “Liz’s priority in all this is upholding the peace process and restoring power sharing,” they said. “We’re not after a fight with the EU. Whatever happens, we want to carry on talking even if that means having to take some form of independent action in parallel to help restore democratic processes in Northern Ireland.”
On Sunday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng denied that the U.K. would be putting its international reputation at risk if it acts alone on the protocol.
“Frankly, I think people can see that we’re standing up for the rule of law in Ukraine,” he told Times Radio. “And we have a good record of that. I’m not worried about that. What I am concerned about in this context is the protocol not working for people in Northern Ireland and creating more political instability.”
But in Ireland, the U.K.’s position is being met with deep skepticism. The country’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin suggested to reporters in Cork on Saturday that Johnson’s government is responsible for the protocol impasse.
“The fundamental challenge with the Northern Ireland protocol may not be with unionism,” he said. “I think it lies with the British government and the British government needs to resolve in itself what it actually wants.”
In Dublin, a member of Ireland’s governing coalition called on Johnson to make clear during Monday’s Belfast trip that he’ll keep working with EU negotiators — and to listen to parties representing the pro-protocol majority in the U.K. region, not only the Democratic Unionists.
“Monday’s visit cannot just be a box-ticking exercise,” Neale Richmond, European affairs spokesman for the Fine Gael party, said in a statement. “We have to see the British government ease up on the constant threats and engage properly. Unilateral action is in nobody’s interest and the past week of threats have been very damaging to relationships.”