Brexit: UK announces plan to kill off Northern Ireland protocol, outrage and disbelief in EU capitals
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss just announced the Government’s intention to introduce legislation “in the coming weeks to make changes in the [Northern Ireland] protocol”.
She told the Commons: “As the Prime Minister said, our shared objective has to be to find a solution that commands the broadest possible cross-community support for years to come and protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.
“That is why I am announcing our intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes in the protocol.”Liz Truss in the Commons this afternoon
“Our preference remains the negotiated solution with the EU. And in parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to further talks if we can achieve the same outcome through negotiated settlement.”
She said she has invited EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic to a meeting of the withdrawal agreement joint committee in London “to discuss this as soon as possible”.
Truss has claimed the Bill will put in place the “necessary measures to lessen the burden on east-west trade” and will “ensure the people of Northern Ireland are able to access the same benefits as the people of Great Britain”.
She went on: “The Bill will ensure that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel. This respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK in its customs territory and protects the UK internal market.
“At the same time, it ensures that goods destined for the EU undergo the full checks and controls applied under EU law. This will be underpinned by data-sharing arrangements that I have already set out.
“It will allow both east-west trade and the EU single market to be protected whilst removing customs paperwork for goods remaining in the United Kingdom.
“The Bill will remove regulatory barriers to goods made to UK standards being sold in Northern Ireland. Businesses will be able to choose between meeting UK or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime.”
Truss said the proposed bill “is consistent with our obligations in international law”.
She told the Commons: “To respond to the very grave and serious situation in Northern Ireland, we are clear there is a necessity to act to ensure the institutions can be restored as soon as possible.
“The Government is clear that proceeding with the bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and in support of our prior obligations in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
“Before any changes are made, we will consult businesses and people in Northern Ireland.”
Liz Truss told the Commons: “This is not about scrapping the protocol.
“Our aim is to deliver on the protocol’s objectives.”Liz Truss this afternoon
“We will cement those provisions which are working in the protocol, including the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation, whilst fixing those elements that aren’t, on the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control, and governance.”
The Bill will include “new measures” to protect the EU single market, including “robust penalties” for those who seek to “abuse the new system”, Truss said.
She told the Commons: “The Bill will provide the Government with the ability to decide on tax and spend policies across the whole of the United Kingdom.
“It will address issues related to governance bringing the protocol in line with international laws.
“At the same time, it will take new measures to protect the EU single market by implementing robust penalties for those who seek to abuse the new system and it will continue to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.
“I will publish more detail on these solutions in the coming weeks.”
Future trade deals could be ‘damaged’
Future UK trade deals could be “damaged” by any threats to interfere with Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements, Labour has said.
Shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Doughty said: “Britain should be a country that keeps its word.
“The rest of the world is looking at us and wondering if we are a country that they want to do business with.
“When we seek to negotiate new deals abroad, does the Government want to make other countries question whether we will keep our end of the bargain?”Shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Doughty
“There are wide-ranging and damaging repercussions undermining our ability to hold others to account for their own commitments, when we should, for example, be pulling together in support of Ukraine, not fuelling divisions with our European allies.”
He later asked: “Will they set out clearly to the House why this doesn’t break international law?”
The Government remains “open” to a “negotiated solution” but the “urgency” of the situation means “we can’t afford to delay any longer”, Truss has claimed.
She told the Commons: “The Bill will contain an explicit power to give effect to a new revised protocol if we can reach an accommodation that meets our goal of protecting the Belfast Good Friday agreement.
“We remain open to a negotiated solution but the urgency of the situation means we can’t afford to delay any longer.Liz Truss this afternoon
“The UK has clear responsibilities as the sovereign government of Northern Ireland to ensure parity of esteem and the protection of economic rights.
“We are clear that the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way just as we have ensured the protection of the EU single market since the existence of the protocol. We must restore the primacy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all of its dimensions as the basis of the restoration of the executive.
“We will do so through technical measures designed to achieve the stated objectives of the protocol, tailored to the reality of Northern Ireland.”
‘Legal in international law’
During her Commons appearance, Truss stressed that the UK Government proposals to reform Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements are “legal in international law”.
Responding to a question from Labour, Truss said: “It is our responsibility as a Government of the United Kingdom to restore peace, to restore the primacy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, to get the executive up and running.
“In answer to his question about legality, we are very clear that this is legal in international law and we will be setting out our legal position in due course.”
Thatcher’s commitment to the rule of law
Conservative MP Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, questioned if the UK Government is committed to honouring the rule of law via its protocol plans.
He began by quoting Margaret Thatcher’s commitment to the rule of law, adding: “Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins. I find it extraordinary that a Tory government needs to be reminded of that.
“Could (Truss) assure me that support for and honouring of the rule of law is what she and the Government is committed to?”
Ms Truss replied: “I can assure (Mr Hoare) that we are committed to upholding the rule of law, we’re clear that this Bill is legal in international law and we will set out the legal position in due course.”
Boris Johnson ‘responsible’
The Prime Minister must take responsibility for the Northern Ireland Protocol, Labour has said.
Shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Doughty said the Government was “trying to convince people its flagship achievement was not a negotiating triumph but a deal so flawed that they cannot abide by it”.
He added: “Either they did not understand their own agreement, they were not upfront about the reality of it or they intended to break it all along. The Prime Minister negotiated this deal, signed it, ran an election campaign on it. He must take responsibility for it and make it work.”
Mr Doughty said that “both the UK Government and the EU need to show willing and good faith”, telling the Commons: “This is not a time for political posturing or high stakes brinkmanship.”
The Labour MP said the opposition wanted to “make Brexit work” and called for a new veterinary agreement with the EU “that would eliminate the vast majority of checks going from Britain to Northern Ireland”.
‘Welcome if overdue’
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Commons: “The statement today is a welcome if overdue step that is a significant move towards addressing the problems created by the protocol and getting power-sharing based upon a cross-community consensus up and running again.
“Therefore, we hope to see progress on a bill in order to deal with these matters in days and weeks, not months. As the legislation progresses we will take a graduated and cautious approach.
“We want to see the Irish Sea border removed and the Government honouring its commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. The statement today indicates this will be covered in the legislation.”
He reiterated that he wants to see the political institutions “possibly functioning as soon as possible”, but said “to restore unionist confidence decisive action is now needed in the form of legislation to repair the harm done by the protocol”.
“I welcome her commitment to such decisive action in this statement.”DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
He called for “sensible arrangements” and said: “The words today are a good start. But the Foreign Secretary will know that it is actions that speak louder than words.
Truss, responding to Donaldson in the Commons, said: “I think it’s vitally important to restore the primacy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement which provided for power sharing in Northern Ireland to ensure we have the consent of all communities.
“It is the Government’s priority above all else to make sure that we protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland.”
‘Going against the majority’
In response to today’s announcement, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood claimed the Foreign Secretary has confirmed “she is going to against the majority” of citizens in Northern Ireland who support the protocol.
He said: “What we’ve heard from this Government today is absolutely astonishing.
“So, this morning, the Government announced that they are going to ride roughshod over the wishes of victims in Northern Ireland by ripping up an international agreement called the Stormont House Agreement.
“Now, the Foreign Secretary has confirmed that she’s going to go against the majority, despite what she might say, the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland who support the protocol, by ripping up an international agreement called the withdrawal agreement.
“It’s a very, very simple question despite what some people … they might not want to listen to the majority of people in Northern Ireland.”
“It’s a very simple question: how can any international partner or how can any citizen in the north of Ireland ever trust this Government again?”Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
Truss replied: “An overwhelming proportion of people in Northern Ireland, 78%, agreed that the protocol needs to change in polling conducted in December 2021.
“It is simply not true to say a majority of people in Northern Ireland support the protocol.
“As the honourable gentleman knows, the Belfast Good Friday Agreement is based on power-sharing, is based on esteem for all communities. What we want to find ideally with the EU is a solution that works for all the communities in Northern Ireland.”
Also responding to today’s announcement, Conservative MP Sir William Cash, who chairs the European Scrutiny Committee, commended the Foreign Secretary for her “excellent statement”.
He said section 38 of the Withdrawal Agreement Act “enables her bill to use our sovereignty, not withstanding the protocol”.
He asked for assurances that the European court and law do not displace UK law, adding:”I urge her to strongly take the advice of the Attorney General on matters of international law.”
Truss said: “On the subject of the ECJ, our solution is to have an arbitration mechanism in place, like we have in the TCA, rather than having the ECJ as the final arbiter.”
Outrage across EU
Across the EU, politicians responded with disbelief and outrage.
German MEP David McAllister, chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, warned against unilateral action by the UK.
“Unilateral action would only make our work on possible landing zones more difficult.”German MEP David McAllister,
“The EU takes a unified stance: we want sustainable solutions in the framework of the protocol. Renegotiations won’t serve the purpose.
“The protocol is part of the solution, it is not the problem.”
European Commission responds
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who has been involved in negotiations with Truss about the Northern Ireland Protocol, criticised her plan and warned that Brussels could retaliate.
He said: “Should the UK decide to move ahead with a bill disapplying constitutive elements of the protocol as announced today by the UK Government, the EU will need to respond with all measures at its disposal.
“Our overarching objective is to find joint solutions within the framework of the protocol. That is the way to ensure legal certainty and predictability for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic
“With political will and commitment, practical issues arising from the implementation of the protocol in Northern Ireland can be resolved.
“The European Commission stands ready to continue playing its part, as it has from the outset.”
In response to today’s announcement, Labour MP Hilary Benn warned unilaterally changing an international treaty is “likely to undermine trust further and may result in trade retaliation”.
The MP for Leeds Central, who formerly chaired the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, said: “I agree that the (EU) Commission needs to move further to reduce unnecessary checks and paperwork on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
He added: “But why does the Foreign Secretary think that threatening unilaterally to change an international treaty – and I look forward to see the description of why that is legal – is going to help encourage the Commission to change its approach, especially when it’s likely to undermine trust further and may result in trade retaliation, which is not in the interests of any of our constituents, is it?”
Truss said the issue Benn raised “cannot be addressed within the operation of the protocol. The protocol itself needs to be changed”.
She outlined the length of discussions and lack of agreement, and said: “We are in a position now where we have seen the Belfast Good Friday Agreement undermined.
“We have seen the balance upset in Northern Ireland … so in the absence of being able to achieve a negotiated solution with the EU, this is why we are bringing forward legislation.”
Wording contained in Article One of the Northern Ireland Protocol means “surely” that the Good Friday Agreement “takes primacy over the protocol”, Conservative former cabinet minister Sir Robert Buckland has said.
Sir Robert told the Commons: “Article One of the protocol makes it very clear that that agreement is to be without prejudice to the Good Friday Belfast agreement regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
“That means, surely, that the Good Friday Agreement takes primacy over the protocol. And if that is right, what evidence will my right honourable friend bring forward to make it very clear that it is necessary for change if we are to avoid a degradation or a degrading in the constitutional order and order generally in Northern Ireland?”
Truss replied: “My right honourable friend makes a very important point about the primacy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which has been vital for peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and it is our priority to restore that. As I have said, we will set out our legal position in due course.”
Finally, power sharing in Northern Ireland will not be restored until an EU “power grab” to “crush” business in Northern Ireland is resolved, ministers have been warned.
DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) told the Commons about the paperwork faced by Marks & Spencer chairman and former Tory MP Archie Norman to do business on the island of Ireland.
Mr Paisley said: “His business in the Republic of Ireland to export goods has to fill in 700 pages.
“It has to do that within an eight-hour period, it has to do some of that wording in Latin to satisfy the European community, and it also has to do it in a certain type font or else it will not be allowed.
“It costs him an additional £30m. He has said this morning on the radio that the EU has told him they would like the same procedures for his businesses in Northern Ireland.”
“This is power grab. People talk about trade war. This is a trade war to crush business in Northern Ireland.DUP MP Ian Paisley
“Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that whenever she is speaking to the Cabinet, that they know clearly that if they keep the protocol, power sharing isn’t coming back?”
Truss said the Government’s proposed new Bill would “deal with the bureaucracy that we are seeing”, adding the Government was “open” to talks over a “negotiated settlement” in the meantime.
Role of judges
The Government was asked to “take action” to make sure that European judges do not have “adverse influence” over trade in Northern Ireland.
Conservative MP Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) said Lord Trimble, who helped bring about the Good Friday Agreement, had raised the issue of the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) role as an arbiter for disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol in a newspaper article.
He said: “As an architect of it with John Hume nearly a quarter of a century ago, he also raised the issue of the adverse influence of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland.
“Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that under her sixth heading, which I think she called governance, she will take action on that issue as well please?”Conservative MP Mark Francois
Truss replied: “I can assure him that we will take action to ensure the arbitration mechanism is in place for Northern Ireland as it is in the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, rather than having the ECJ as the final arbiter which it is as present.”
Alliance MP Stephen Farry (North Down): “Specifically on the issue of the European Court of Justice, does the Foreign Secretary understand that if she tinkers with that jurisdiction, that will force Northern Ireland out of the single market for goods and undermine Northern Ireland’s ability to attract investment in terms of dual access to both the European Union and Great Britain?”
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney has said he “deeply regrets” the British Government’s decision to introduce legislation that will disapply elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Coveney said such unilateral action “is damaging to trust and will serve only to make it more challenging to find solutions to the genuine concerns that people in Northern Ireland have about how the protocol is being implemented”.
He said the unilateral action from the British Government is “contrary” to the wishes of people and businesses in Northern Ireland, but welcomed Truss’s preference for a negotiated solution with the EU.
Also in the Commons today, Conservative MP Greg Smith (Buckingham) said the path the Foreign Secretary set out “is exactly the right one”, but called for a deadline “by which negotiations must be completed by”.
Truss said: “We are bringing forward legislation in the coming weeks, and that legislation will progress through Parliament as normal… in parallel to that, if we are able to reach a negotiated solution with the EU, which will require them to change their mandate, then by the time the Bill goes for royal assent we can put that into the Bill.
We will not allow those negotiations to slow down the path of legislation, that is very important, because we understand that the situation is urgent.”Liz Truss
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) said: “Can I press the Foreign Secretary on why she is laying the ground for a trade war with our largest trading partners just as the Bank of England is warning of an apocalyptic rise in food prices?”
Ms Truss said: “Our proposed solution reduces bureaucracy all round and makes the EU no worse off in that we continue to protect the single market, we continue to supply that commercial data, we will have strong enforcement mechanisms.”