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The UK government will Monday introduce legislation to unilaterally rip up post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland, despite the potential for a trade war with the EU.
London says it still prefers a negotiated outcome with the European Union to reform the “Northern Ireland Protocol”, whose provisions have become anathema to pro-UK unionists in the divided territory.
But without a deal through dialogue, the bill would take effect to override Britain’s EU withdrawal treaty — although the government insists it is not breaking international law.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said Sunday that the protocol was disrupting trade and had crippled the territory’s power-sharing government, due to unionist objections.
“So it’s right that we repair that,” he said, adding that the need to protect a 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland had “primacy” over the protocol.
Lewis rejected threats from some in the EU that unilateral changes could trigger the suspension of the withdrawal treaty’s wider trade agreement, leading to sanctions and tariffs against Britain.
The UK can ill-afford a trade war, at a time when its people are grappling with the worst inflationary crisis in a generation.
“I think that kind of language is really unhelpful,” the minister said on Times Radio, pointing to the need for Britain and the EU to work together against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, patience with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tactics is wearing thin in Ireland and the wider EU.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney spoke with his UK counterpart Liz Truss on Monday, telling her the move marked “a particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit”, his office said.
Truss also talked to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, who said he warned the UK minister that “unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust and a formula for uncertainty”.
But Johnson told LBC radio that the move was “the right way forward” and was required to maintain the “balance and the symmetry” of the Good Friday agreement.
“One community at the moment feels very, very estranged from the way things are operating, very alienated. And we’ve just got to fix that.”
In a historic first, Irish nationalists Sinn Fein emerged as the biggest party in Northern Ireland elections last month.
The pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party argues that the protocol is jeopardising Northern Ireland’s status in the UK and is boycotting the local government, leaving it in limbo under the 1998 deal.
The protocol requires checks on goods arriving from England, Scotland and Wales, to prevent them from entering the EU’s single market via the Republic of Ireland.
The UK bill is expected to scrap most of the checks, creating a “green channel” for British traders to send goods to Northern Ireland without making any customs declaration to the EU.
The EU would have access to more real-time UK data on the flow of goods, and only businesses intending to trade into the single market via Ireland would be required to make declarations.
The EU would need to trust the UK to monitor the flow, and the UK has vowed “robust penalties” for any companies seeking to abuse the new system.
Since the confidence vote, Johnson has reportedly been under pressure from pro-Brexit Tory hardliners to toughen the bill and remove oversight of the protocol by the European Court of Justice.
Lewis said there was “no logic” to having only one side’s judges involved in a bilateral trade arrangement, but ECJ invigilation is a red line for the EU, to protect its single market.
The main UK opposition Labour party said the government was in no position to claim its handling of the Brexit dispute was lawful.
“This government seems to be developing a record for lawbreaking,” Labour’s shadow finance minister Rachel Reeves said, after Johnson was fined over one of many Downing Street lockdown parties.