Although Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says she wants to ‘fix not scrap’ the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK’s plans to introduce a new Bill into Parliament could rewrite significant parts of the deal, risking a trade war with Brussels.
One EU source, quoted by Politico, said the UK’s threat of legislation was not a “serious step” but added that if it were to pass that would be “pressing the nuclear button”.
Brussels has said it would take retaliatiory steps against the UK if it does override the Protocol which could include legal action and suspending the UK-EU trade agreement, raising the prospect of tariffs on goods travelling between Britain and Europe.
Ms Truss said it was still the UK’s preference to secure a negotiated settlement but insisted Britain had to act to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
Democratic Unionists who oppose the trading arrangements are refusing to join a new Executive at Stormont until the Protocol is changed, leaving the Northern Ireland Assembly unable to function.
Details of the bill will be revealed in the “coming weeks”, Ms Truss added, with the UK and EU set to reopen negotiations to try and find a settlement to a crisis which has left Northern Ireland’s government in paralysis.
“It’s not scrapping the protocol as some people have claimed,” she told Sky News. “It’s fixing the protocol, making it better, making it work better…that’s the solution we want to get to.”
She later told Times Radio however that time was running out to act to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. “I’m absolutely clear that we can’t delay … delivering a solution in Northern Ireland. The situation is very severe.
“The executive hasn’t been formed since February. And we’re only going to be able to get it back up and running, to get the Belfast Good Friday Agreement working again, by delivering this solution.
“Now, if while we’re putting this legislation through we can get a negotiated solution with the EU, that would be very positive – we’d be able to put that into the legislation. But we’re certainly not delaying the legislative process because it is urgent that we deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.”
But even if the UK goes ahead with plans for the new bill before the summer, it could take months to pass and is set to face opposition in the House of Lords.
The European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic was due to brief EU ambassadors today on the Protocol, part of the UK-EU 2019 Brexit Treaty which established a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
Amid concerns from some Tory MPs that the UK’s latest move to ramp up the pressure on Brussels would breach international law, Ms Truss said today that legal advice on its proposed legislation would be published “very shortly”.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves acknowledged the EU was being “overzealous” on checks on goods destined to stay within the UK but warned the UK against using “megaphone diplomacy”.
She said: “I think the EU are being overzealous in the checks.
“There are goods that are destined for market in Northern Ireland, never going to leave Northern Ireland, never going to get into the single market, which is what the EU say their worry.
“For those goods that are just moving into Northern Ireland then I just don’t think we need the level of checks the EU are pursuing.
“But the way to resolve this is not through megaphone diplomacy, it’s not unilaterally ripping up the protocol, it’s by working in partnership to resolve these very real issues that do exist.”