Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, warned on Thursday that Britain would have “no choice but to act” after talks with Brussels to soften the impact of post-Brexit trade checks in Northern Ireland ended in deadlock.
Truss “noted with regret” that Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission vice-president, had indicated in the talks that the EU’s position on the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs post-Brexit trade in the region, would not significantly change.
The lack of progress was widely expected, but it now clears the way for UK prime minister Boris Johnson to announce legislation, possibly as early as next week, that would allow Britain to unilaterally override parts of the protocol.
Such a move by London could trigger trade retaliation by the EU and fuel concern in Washington, which has warned the UK against taking any unilateral action.
The legislation is expected to receive a rough passage through parliament. Some Conservative MPs are expected to resist a move that would rip up parts of Britain’s Brexit treaty with the EU, while the House of Lords is also expected to be hostile to any unilateral change to the international agreement.
Truss told Šefčovič, her opposite number in talks on the protocol, that fundamental changes were needed to the trading rules, which are opposed by Northern Ireland’s pro-UK unionist parties.
She argued that unless checks on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland were greatly reduced, there was no prospect of the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, rejoining the region’s power-sharing executive at Stormont.
The government has received legal advice that it would be justified in overriding parts of the protocol, which Johnson himself negotiated, in order to support the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the region.
“The fundamental issue is that the EU refuse to countenance changing the protocol, even though it’s risking peace and stability in Northern Ireland,” said one ally of Truss. “The protocol should not take priority over the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”
The UK Foreign Office noted that Truss said 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”.
Johnson was warned when he negotiated the protocol that it would create political problems in Northern Ireland as it creates a trade border in the Irish Sea and leaves the region in the EU’s single market for goods. It also provides for an open land border on the island of Ireland.
The UK government believes that the Brexit deal reforms suggested by the EU in October do not go far enough. Truss told Šefčovič that Brussels “bore a responsibility to show more pragmatism” in their negotiations.
But European member states have insisted they are not prepared to renegotiate an international treaty that only came into effect at the start of last year. Their priority is to protect the EU single market, which allows goods to circulate freely within 27 countries once they have crossed the union’s external border.
“The EU simply expects that international agreement to be honoured and is willing to be extremely flexible in terms of how it is honoured to try to accommodate what are genuine concerns in Northern Ireland from business people and from the unionist community in particular,” Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister of foreign affairs, told RTE radio on Thursday.
“The rhetoric that we have got from the British government . . . that essentially paints the EU as a body that’s inflexible . . . isn’t reflective of reality,” he added.
A briefing note sent to member states by the commission on Wednesday said it would “respond firmly” to any unilateral UK move “using the legal and political tools” at its disposal.
Johnson said he was still hoping that the EU would renegotiate the protocol, and the legislation was likely to take months to be enacted, creating space for further talks. However, in London hopes of a breakthrough are slim.
Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Belfast
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