The United Kingdom’s government has proposed new legislation that would unilaterally change post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, despite opposition from some members of Parliament and European Union officials who say the move violates international law.
Despite Ireland describing the move as a “new low”, and Brussels talking of damaged trust, the UK pressed ahead on Monday with what Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested were “relatively trivial” steps to improve trade and simplify bureaucracy between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Brushing aside criticism, Johnson told reporters that the proposed change was “relatively simple to do”.
“Frankly, it’s a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things,” the prime minister told LBC Radio.
He argued that his government’s “higher and prior legal commitment” is to the 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland.
The proposed bill seeks to remove customs checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. However, such a move overrides part of the post-Brexit trade treaty that Johnson signed with the EU less than two years ago.
The British government maintains it is acting within international law, but the European Commission said it could take legal action against London.
European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said there will be no renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol agreement.
“Renegotiating the protocol is unrealistic … Any renegotiation would simply bring further legal uncertainty for people and businesses in Northern Ireland. For these reasons, the European Union will not renegotiate the protocol,” Sefcovic said in a statement.
“Our aim will always be to secure the implementation of the Protocol. Our reaction to unilateral action by the UK will reflect that aim and will be proportionate.”
In Ireland, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the development “marks a particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit”.
Ireland’s Taoiseach or leader, Prime Minister Micheal Martin, said it was “very regrettable for a country like the UK to renege on an international treaty”.
Centre of the dispute
At the centre of the dispute is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which regulates trade ties between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, part of the EU, after Brexit.
Britain and the EU agreed in their Brexit deal that the Irish land border would be kept free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
To protect the EU’s single market, there are checks on some goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
But the arrangement has proved politically damaging for Johnson because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, potentially weakening the province’s historic links with Britain.
Britain has long threatened to rip up the protocol and it is now planning a “green channel” for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, to change tax rules, and end the European Court of Justice’s role as sole arbiter in disputes related to the protocol.
The bill to override that arrangement is expected to face opposition in the British Parliament, including from members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party.
Critics say unilaterally changing the protocol would be illegal and would damage Britain’s standing with other countries because it’s part of a treaty considered binding under international law.
A new trade row with the EU would also come at a time when Britain faces its toughest economic conditions in decades, with inflation forecast to hit 10 percent and growth stalling.
Johnson said any talk of a trade war would be a “gross, gross overreaction”.
United States House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also said there will be no US-UK trade deal if London scraps the Northern Ireland Protocol.