Brussels has insisted it will not renegotiate the EU’s Brexit deal with the UK after London inflamed tensions by launching a bold push to overhaul trading rules for Northern Ireland.
The renewed conflict came as it emerged British prime minister Boris Johnson wanted to renegotiate the so-called Northern Ireland protocol agreed with Brussels in 2019, even though it has only been in force since the beginning of the year.
Lord David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit minister, published a paper that proposed dismantling key parts of the protocol, which governs post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland, including stripping the European Court of Justice of its role in policing it.
Most checks at Irish Sea ports on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be replaced by a new system largely based on the honesty of traders, with spot checks behind the border.
Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president in charge of relations with the UK, said Brussels “will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol”. Weeks or months of diplomatic wrangling lie ahead.
The issue could also increase tensions between US president Joe Biden, who describes himself as Irish, and Johnson. Brendan Boyle, a Democratic Congressman and member of the Irish caucus on Capitol Hill, said “the British government has tried to evade its responsibilities under the protocol”.
“Their latest statement and proposed changes just continues this trend and serves only to further destabilise Northern Ireland,” he said.
Frost insisted Britain wanted to make the protocol work more effectively, but left open the possibility of London suspending it if Brussels refuses to accede to the demands. “We cannot go on as we are,” he said.
The post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland was identified by Frost as “the main obstacle” to building a productive, new UK-EU relationship. He wants to settle the issue permanently by rewriting the Johnson Brexit deal.
Frost is looking to “freeze” the current situation regarding Northern Ireland pending a negotiation which he admits would require reopening the treaty signed by the prime minister as part of his Brexit deal.
That would include indefinitely extending “grace periods” — waivers on border checks at Irish Sea ports on items such as chilled meats and parcels — until a new settlement is reached.
The grace periods are due to expire at the end of September, meaning that London and Brussels have only a matter of weeks to settle their fundamental differences over the future of the protocol.
Frost also wants the EU to suspend legal action against the UK over the operation of the protocol so that any negotiations on a new deal could proceed in a less fraught atmosphere.
Under the protocol, all goods shipped from GB to NI must follow the EU’s rules for customs and agrifood products, resulting in checks on the Irish Sea. The Brexit deal sought to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The implementation of border checks at Irish Sea ports has inflamed tensions among the pro-UK unionist community in Northern Ireland and led to disruption of some trade between GB and the region. Frost claimed it was tearing at “the fabric” of the UK.
Sefcovic said the commission would “continue to engage with the UK” and “seek creative solutions within the framework of the protocol”.
But a full-scale renegotiation of the text, including a review of the ECJ, is seen as unacceptable in Brussels.
“The protocol must be implemented. Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance,” said Sefcovic.
The Biden administration warned it was watching to ensure any moves by Boris Johnson’s government did not imperil the Northern Ireland peace process.
State department spokesman Ned Price said Washington wanted both sides “to negotiate within the existing mechanisms when differences do arise”.
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Frost’s allies said the minister would listen to the EU if it argued that all issues could be resolved within the scope of the existing protocol, but said changing the role of ECJ would require a change to the treaty.
They insisted that the new British approach, which was signalled to Washington in advance, would “not be a problem” for the Biden administration because the UK was committed to negotiating a new settlement with Brussels in good faith.
Frost insisted that leaving the protocol issue unresolved posed a bigger threat to the UK-EU relationship than trying to tackle its supposed flaws head on. He said the current relationship was “punctuated with legal challenges and characterised by disagreement and mistrust”.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe