UK decision to tear up protocol could jeopardize Brexit trade deal, says Coveney
A move by the UK government to unilaterally cancel the Northern Ireland Protocol could put the wider Brexit trade deal at risk, the Foreign Secretary has warned.
Simon Coveney has urged Boris Johnson to commit to continuing his engagement with the EU to resolve the Irish Sea trade dispute, rather than breaking international law by acting alone.
Tensions between London and Brussels are escalating over the prospect that Mr Johnson will use national legislation from Westminster to override parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which require checks on goods moving between Britain and North Ireland.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to formally announce a plan on Tuesday to legislate the protocol, although an actual parliamentary bill is not expected to be released then.
Mr Coveney’s comments came ahead of Mr Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland on Monday for emergency talks with political leaders in Stormont in a bid to break the deadlock caused by the protocol.
Power-sharing institutions in Belfast have been plunged into crisis following recent Assembly elections, with the DUP refusing to reinstate a devolved government in protest at trade deals which the party says undermine the union.
The EU has made it clear that unilateral action by the UK to withdraw from the protocol agreement would represent a clear breach of international law.
Mr Coveney, who was in Brussels on Monday, warned that the whole UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement – the ATT – could be jeopardized if Mr Johnson took unilateral action on the protocol.
“This is a moment of calm, this is a moment of dialogue, this is a moment of compromise and partnership between the EU and the UK to resolve these outstanding issues,” he said. to journalists.
“If this is the approach taken by the UK Government, we can make significant progress and we can make progress quickly in addressing the concerns of the business and trade union community in Northern Ireland.
“This alternative is a unilateral action which means tension, resentment, impasses, legal challenges and of course calls into question the functioning of the ACT itself, because the ACT and the Withdrawal Agreement are linked, they rely one over the other.
“It’s the last thing Europe needs right now, when we’re working so well together in the face of Russian aggression and responding to the support Ukraine needs right now.”
Ahead of his visit to the North, where he will meet with the five main parties at Hillsborough Castle, Mr Johnson insisted he was not in favor of scrapping the protocol, but rather amending it to reduce disruption to the Irish Sea trade.
The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement contains provisions to protect and develop relations both on a north/south basis on the island of Ireland and on an east/west basis between the island and the Britain.
Mr Johnson says the protocol has upset this “delicate balance” of unionist and nationalist aspirations by undermining the East/West dynamic.
In a Belfast Telegraph article, Mr Johnson said the UK would have a ‘need to act’ if the EU was unwilling to reach a compromise in the growing row over the protocol.
However, he stressed that the government remained open to a “genuine dialogue” with the European Commission.
He said the protocol was negotiated in “good faith”, adding that “those who want to scrap the protocol, rather than seek change, are focusing on the wrong thing.”
Discord over protocol will not be Mr Johnson’s only focus on Monday, as he will also use his visit to promise the delivery of three pre-existing commitments: a stalled language and culture package; ensure that women and girls have full access to abortion services; and the introduction of new measures to deal with the legacy of the past.
The protocol, agreed by the UK and EU to keep trade flowing across the border, requires customs and regulatory checks on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.
This has been the source of resentment and anger among many trade unionists and loyalists who believe the arrangements have weakened the North’s place in the union.
However, a majority of MPs in the newly elected Stormont Assembly represent parties that support keeping the protocol, saying it offers Northern Ireland some protection from the negative economic consequences of Brexit.
They point out that unhindered access for traders from Northern Ireland to sell in the EU single market is a key benefit of the protocol.
The new Assembly was unable to convene due to the DUP’s refusal to commit to the institutions until major changes to protocol were achieved.
The Stormont election saw Sinn Féin displace the DUP to become the largest party in the North for the first time.
The DUP remains the largest unionist party in the region and, under Stormont rules, a new executive can only be formed if they agree to nominate for the post of Deputy Prime Minister.
‘Here to stay’ protocol, says O’Neill after meeting…
The DUP has also blocked the appointment of a new Speaker of the Assembly, meaning the Belfast legislature cannot meet while the deadlock continues.
The party has made clear it needs action rather than words on Mr Johnson’s protocol before a return to power-sharing can be tolerated.
Sinn Féin, which is now entitled to the role of prime minister, has accused the DUP of holding northerners to ransom by not allowing Stormont to operate amid a cost of living crisis.