Boris Johnson has today vowed to push through his changes to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol this year, despite the EU’s legal challenges.
The Prime Minister said today at the 2022 G7 summit in Germany that “we can do it fairly rapidly”, while waving away concerns the legislation will lead to a trade war.
Johnson’s bill, which was debated today in parliament, will unilaterally change the protocol and remove many of the checks for goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The UK and EU both agree the protocol, which is as a part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, is not working and that stringent customs checks are creating economic and political difficulties in Northern Ireland.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss today told MPs that the protocol was “undermining the functioning of the [Good Friday peace] agreement” and has “created fractures between [Great Britain and Northern Ireland]”.
The UK government has said its new legislation is not a breach of international law due to the concept of “necessity” in international treaties, which states that agreements can be broken if it is done to protect a country from serious domestic peril.
However, the EU has said the decision to act without an agreement with Brussels is a breach of international law and that legal action is now being pursued.
There are also concerns that the EU could retaliate by raising tariffs on British exports and thereby start a trade war.
Despite this, Johnson claimed the issue was not being brought up in meetings with EU leaders at the G7.
“The interesting thing is how little this conversation is being had,” he said.
Several Tory MPs today hit out at the government’s attempts to unilaterally override the protocol, with former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell saying the bill “brazenly brakes a solemn international treaty, it trashes our international reputation, it threatens a trade war at the time our economy is flat and it puts us at odds with our most important ally”.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May said: “This bill is not in my view legal in international law, it will not achieve its aims and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world and I cannot support it.”
In response to calls that ministers must continue to negotiate with the EU, Truss said “we’ve already been negotiating for 18 months, we have a negotiating partner who is refusing to change the text of the protocol”.
“Meanwhile, we have a worsening situation in Northern Ireland. It is firmly the view of this government that we need to act,” she said.
Northern Ireland still follows the EU’s customs union and single market rules, unlike the rest of the UK, in order to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Protocol mandated that there would be checks on a range of goods – particularly food and live animals – crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to protect the EU’s single market from unauthorised products.
This has led to onerous checks, which have led to major supply chain disruption and anger among unionist communities about the so-called border in the Irish Sea.
The UK’s new bill sets out ambitions for the UK to create a “green lane” to allow goods intended only for Northern Ireland to pass without checks, while products that are being transited into the Republic of Ireland will be put into a “red lane” and require border checks.
It also ends the role of the European Court of Justice as the body responsible for enforcing the protocol, with ambitions to instead create an independent arbiter, and gives powers to UK ministers to unilaterally “fix” problems they identify.
The UK has said that it is still willing to negotiate with the EU to reach an agreed solution.