The UK’s Brexit minister has said the Northern Ireland Protocol must be fundamentally changed or else the UK will suspend it, saying it would be a “historic misjudgment” for Brussels not to act.
Lord David Frost said in Lisbon today that the post-Brexit treaty was not working and has irreparably “lost consent in one community in Northern Ireland”, referring to unionists who feel the protocol fundamentally separates the country from the rest of the UK.
Frost also said the protocol, which was brokered by him as chief negotiator, was “a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied, and therefore cannot reasonably last in its current form”.
The EU has said it is not willing to change the text of the Northern Ireland Protocol, but is willing to change its implementation to reduce border checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic will tomorrow put forward proposals that will aim to reduce the political and economic tensions caused by the implementation of the protocol.
Frost said it would cost the EU nothing to change the protocol and that the UK would trigger Article 16 and suspend it if Brussels does not agree to rewrite the treaty.
The European Commission declined to officially comment on Frost’s speech.
“I do understand why the EU feels it is difficult to come back to an agreement reached only two years ago, though obviously that in itself is far from unusual in international relations,” Frost said.
“The key feature of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is balance – between different communities and between their links with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. That balance is being shredded by the way this protocol is working.
“The fundamental difficulty is that we are being asked to run a full-scale external boundary of the EU through the centre of our country, to apply EU law without consent in part of it, and to have any dispute on these arrangements settled in the court of one of the parties.”
He added: “If we can put the protocol on a durable footing, we have the opportunity to move past the difficulties of the past year.
“We have a short, but real, opportunity to put in place a new arrangement, to defuse the political crisis that is brewing, both in Northern Ireland and between us.”
The protocol is a part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and sees Northern Ireland follow the EU’s customs union and single market rules, unlike the rest of the UK, in order to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
London and Brussels are in long-running negotiations over how to implement the protocol, after complaints that checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have been too onerous and are causing economic and political tensions.
The EU says the checks are necessary to stop unauthorised goods entering its single market, however Sefcovic’s proposals tomorrow are expected to outline a path for less stringent border measures.
The UK has called for the protocol to change and for there to be an “honesty box” approach whereby goods will not need to be checked when crossing the Irish Sea if exporters from Great Britain say the products are only intended for use in Northern Ireland.
Frost also said the governance of the deal should be changed so the European Court of Justice (ECJ) no longer has oversight of the deal.
He said that “without new arrangements in this area no protocol will ever have the support across Northern Ireland it needs to survive”.
“The [European] Commission have been too quick to dismiss governance as a side issue,” he said.
“The reality is the opposite. The role of the European Court of Justice and the EU institutions in Northern Ireland create a situation where there appears to be no discretion about how provisions in the protocol are implemented.
“The commission’s decision to launch infraction proceedings against us earlier this year at the very first sign of disagreement shows why these arrangements won’t work in practice.”
Baroness Jenny Chapman, Labour’s shadow minister for Task Force Europe, said Frost had acted “immaturely” in his approach to UK-EU relations.
“Contrary to moving on from Brexit, senior Tories appear desperate to use a tussle with Brussels to distract from their domestic failures – whether on Covid, the energy crisis, or the needless culling of thousands of pigs,” she said.