UK will legislate to change post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade rules

LONDON — The U.K. will legislate to change post-Brexit rules governing trade in Northern Ireland, the British foreign secretary has confirmed.

In a statement to the House of Commons Tuesday, Liz Truss said she will bring forward a bill in the next few weeks giving British ministers the power to slash customs paperwork on businesses trading across the Irish Sea under the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, among other changes.

Brussels and Dublin have warned that such a move risks breaching international law and could scupper talks to improve the arrangement, with the European Commission criticizing a “take it or leave it” approach from the U.K.

Agreed by both the U.K. and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in 2019, the protocol was drawn up to protect the EU’s single market after Britain exited in January 2021, while preventing a land border in the island of Ireland.

Addressing MPs, Truss argued unilateral action on the protocol is needed because the Good Friday peace agreement is “under strain” and unionists in Northern Ireland are refusing to form a power-sharing regional executive because of the set-up.

“Our preference is to reach a negotiated outcome with the EU and we have worked tirelessly to that end and will continue to do so,” she said. But after a year and a half of talks, she said, the EU’s proposals “don’t address the fundamental concerns” with the protocol.

Truss told MPs the British government is “clear that proceeding with the bill is consistent with our obligations and international law and in support of our prior obligations in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”

And she insisted the latest plans were “not about scrapping the protocol,” instead vowing to strengthen areas of the arrangement London believes are working well, while “fixing those elements that aren’t — on the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control and governance.”

The promised legislation will, Truss vowed, reduce red tape for firms moving goods from Great Britain destined only for Northern Ireland, while maintaining “full checks and controls” on those intended for the EU’s single market via the Republic of Ireland.

U.K. ministers will meanwhile hand themselves the power to “remove regulatory barriers to goods made to U.K. standards being sold in Northern Ireland,” she said, with businesses “able to choose between meeting U.K. or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime.”

Truss also promised the bill would “provide the government with the ability to decide on tax and spend policies across the whole of the United Kingdom,” and pledge action to “address issues related to governance” of the protocol to bring it “in line with international norms.” However, she stopped short of giving any detail on how London will seek to change the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union in overseeing the rules, and promised “more detail on these solutions in the coming weeks” as Britain continues “to engage with the EU.”

“The bill will contain an explicit power to give effect to a new revised protocol,” she said. “If we can reach an accommodation that meets our goal of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we remain open to a negotiated solution — but the urgency of the situation means we can’t afford to delay any longer.”

EU-U.K. talks on simplifying the operation of the protocol have been frozen since February, but the European Commission is aiming to resume the discussions in the second half of the year, an EU diplomat said.

Speaking ahead of the statement, a Commission spokesman urged the U.K. to engage on the basis of the proposals put forward by the EU in October.

“In general, when we came forward with the flexibilities last October we said this was not a ‘take it or leave it’ type package,” he told reporters Tuesday.