Foreign secretary Liz Truss has set the scene for a furious Brexit spat with Europe, telling Brussels the UK will have “no choice but to act” over the Northern Ireland protocol unless the EU changes its stance.
Ms Truss’s warning in a phone call with European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič is expected to be followed within days by the publication of emergency legislation to override key elements of the protocol, negotiated by Boris Johnson in 2019 to avoid a hard border between the Republic and the North after Brexit.
While the foreign secretary’s words suggested that there was still room for the EU to avert a clash by changing its negotiating mandate in the coming days, Mr Šefčovič told Ms Truss flatly that there was “no room” for this to happen.
The entrenched stalemate effectively brings down the curtain on talks lasting more than a year in which the UK has been demanding the relaxation of checks on goods imported into Northern Ireland from the British mainland as a result of Mr Johnson’s decision to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea. The EU has offered to ease veterinary controls and rules on medicines but has refused to reopen the deal for wholesale renegotiation
Mr Šefčovič told Ms Truss that there was “no room” for his negotiating mandate to be changed or for new proposals to be put forward from the EU side to reduce trade friction, according to a Foreign Office (FCDO) account of the conversation.
The FCDO said in a statement: “The foreign secretary noted this with regret and said the situation in Northern Ireland is a matter of internal peace and security for the United Kingdom, and if the EU would not show the requisite flexibility to help solve those issues. , then as a responsible government we would have no choice but to act.”
The crunch discussion came hours after attorney general Suella Braverman revealed that she had received legal advice that it would be lawful to tear up parts of the protocol because of the “disproportionate and unreasonable” way it has been implemented by Brussels.
She has submitted evidence accusing the EU of undermining the Good Friday Agreement by creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea, and warned of “societal unrest” in Northern Ireland.
In her talks today with Mr Šefčovič, Ms Truss said that the protocol had become the “greatest obstacle” to forming a Northern Ireland executive, after the power-sharing arrangements were collapsed by the DUP.
The unionist party, which wants the protocol scrapped, has refused to enter into a new executive headed by Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, which became the largest group in the Northern Ireland Assembly in last week’s Stormont elections.
Ms Truss said that the current situation was causing “unacceptable disruption to trade” and had created “a two-tier system where people in Northern Ireland weren’t being treated the same as everyone else in the UK”.
She called on the Commission to show “more pragmatism” in implementing the deal, suggesting that this was necessary in order to defend the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which underpins civil peace in Northern Ireland.
And she insisted that EU proposals would “take us backwards” by creating more checks and paperwork, while arguing that plans tabled by the UK for green and red channel arrangements, backed up by a bespoke data-sharing system, would allow the removal of GB- NI trade barriers while protecting the EU single market.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.