UK revives Brexit feud with call to replace Northern Ireland pact
UK Brexit minister David Frost issued a tough new challenge to the European Union, saying he will propose a new Northern Ireland protocol to replace the current one, which he said is harming the region and “has to change.”
But he also left some room for compromise, saying he is prepared for a negotiation with the EU over how to address London’s concerns without triggering a larger trade war.
The protocol is not working and fixing it is a “prerequisite for getting to a better place” in the relationship with the EU,” Frost said Tuesday in a speech in Lisbon. He later added, “There are several stages in this process where everybody can look carefully at it and decide to pull back from the brink.”
The growing dispute over the movement of goods into Northern Ireland could derail future relations between the UK and EU, which has rejected any renegotiation of the laboriously negotiated protocol.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, will lay out his own proposal on Wednesday for tweaks to the Northern Ireland accord - a binding international treaty.
The EU’s counteroffer, which is focused on specific adjustments to how the protocol is implemented, will address the movement of medicines, food inspections and customs checks, Sefcovic has said.
The proposals would sharply reducing the checks on products moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and would also permit British chilled-meats producers to keep selling their goods in Northern Ireland, the BBC reported.
But the EU offer will fall well short of what Frost is demanding, setting up a prolonged fight over Northern Ireland that could ignite damaging tit-for-tat economic retaliation and reopen the wounds from the painful negotiation over the UK's exit from the EU.
As part of its divorce from the bloc, Britain signed up to the Northern Ireland protocol, which kept the province in the EU’s single market - unlike the rest of the UK.
The UK signed the protocol in 2019 in good faith and hoped that it would work effectively, Frost said, adding that it has become clear that the pact isn’t working as intended.
The government in London argues that the EU’s over-zealous customs checks are stifling the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leading to empty shelves in supermarkets and disrupted deliveries for people in the province.
Some political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly unionists, also oppose the protocol, saying it separates them from the rest of the U.K.
“The protocol does not have the support of a single elected unionist in Northern Ireland,” Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said in response to Frost’s speech. “If it is not replaced, then it will condemn Northern Ireland to further harm and instability.”
Frost said he is sharing with the EU a new “forward-looking” Northern Ireland protocol, aimed at replacing the existing version - an agreement struck when the U.K. did not know whether it would sign a trade deal with the bloc.
He also warned the EU that it needs to engage substantively in the debate and that London was prepared to break the protocol if necessary.
“That may include using Article 16 if necessary,” Frost said, referring to the mechanism that would suspend parts of the protocol. “We would not go down this road gratuitously or with any particular pleasure.”
There was no immediate reaction from the EU, but Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted, “I hope UK Gov is serious about moving on in partnership.”
The European Commission has said previously that the UK hasn’t done enough to demonstrate it intends to honour its obligations under the protocol. While European officials have been given access to the computer systems which register goods entering Northern Ireland, the UK hasn’t made progress on building the physical infrastructure needed for the border checks.
Frost said the UK is never going to adopt the same level of border controls as the EU, because the government doesn’t believe the risks require them. He also rejected the role of the European Court of Justice in having authority over trade between Britain and Northern Ireland
“It is not just about the court. It is about the system of which the court is the apex - the system which means the EU can make laws which apply in Northern Ireland without any kind of democratic scrutiny or discussion,” he said. “Even now, as the EU considers possible solutions, there is an air of it saying “we have decided what’s best for you, and will now implement it.”
He added that the broader aim of the Brexit move was to boost democracy in the UK and to boost economic and political opportunities, but that the U.K. still wants friendly relations with the EU.
“Competition between us is likely to be helpful to us both. But alienation would be a serious historical error,” he said. “The bumpiness of the last four years must not be doubted, but the prize of entering into a new era of relations cannot be doubted either.”
(Updates with details of EU proposal in sixth paragraph)
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