Brexit: Liz Truss tells EU she has ‘no choice’ but to act on Northern Ireland protocol

European Commission expresses ‘serious concern’ over ‘unacceptable’ UK stance

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Ashley Cowburn
Thursday 12 May 2022 15:35 BST
(Getty Images)

Liz Truss has set the scene for a furious Brexit spat with Europe, telling Brussels the UK will have “no choice but to act” over the Northern Ireland protocol unless the EU backs down.

The foreign secretary’s warning in a phone call with European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič is expected to be followed within days by the publication of emergency legislation to override key elements of the protocol, negotiated by Boris Johnson in 2019 to avoid a hard border between the Republic and the North after Brexit.

Speaking after the call, Mr Šefčovič voiced “serious concern” over the impasse, warning it would be “unacceptable” for the UK to take unilateral action by walking away from the international treaty signed by Johnson.

And he later told a meeting of EU and UK parliamentarians in Brussels: “Honesty about what the UK signed up to is needed. Honesty that the EU cannot solve all the problems created by Brexit and the type of Brexit chosen by the UK.

“We will not renegotiate the protocol and the EU is united in this position. Unilateral action effectively disapplying the protocol is not the solution.”

Mr Johnson himself suggested that the government was forced to respond to unionist opposition to the protocol, which has seen the DUP refuse to enter a new power-sharing executive following last week’s elections.

“It’s clear that the unionist community won’t accept the protocol,” said the prime minister. “That’s obvious from what’s happened. We’ve got to fix it.”

While the foreign secretary’s words suggested that there was still room for the EU to avert a clash by changing its negotiating mandate in the coming days, Mr Šefčovič told Ms Truss flatly that there was “no room” for this to happen and Downing Street conceded that the situation was now “very serious”.

The stalemate looks set to bring down the curtain on talks lasting 16 months in which the UK has been demanding the relaxation of checks on goods imported into Northern Ireland from the British mainland which were introduced as a result of Mr Johnson’s decision to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea.

No 10 said talks were likely to continue at official level over the coming days and that the UK was not setting a fixed deadline for action.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson insisted that no final decision has yet been taken on whether to press ahead with legislation overriding the protocol.

“We have seen on a number of occasions that the EU has made statements about the protocol and following subsequent negotiations there have been concessions made,” said the spokesperson. “We are trying to keep all options open but the situation is very serious.”

But there is no follow-up meeting scheduled between Ms Truss and Mr Šefčovič, and one Downing Street source said that the cabinet was united around the position that “something needs to be done” as the EU position appears to be solidifying.

”You never know what the EU are going to come back with,” said the source. “But they set their position out today and we don’t have any signals that that is going to change.”

Any unilateral breach of the Brexit deal by the UK could eventually lead to a trade war with Europe, as Brussels retaliates by suspending the tariff-free export arrangements enshrined in the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

But legislation to override the protocol is likely to take as long as a year to go through parliament, with stiff opposition expected in the House of Lords, and government sources made clear that negotiations could continue throughout that time to avert a hugely costly breakdown in trade relations.

Ms Truss ratcheted up tensions over the protocol on Tuesday with a statement warning that proposals set out by the EU to ease trading frictions would in fact “take us backwards”. But Mr Šefčovič told her today that there was “no room” for further concessions or for a change in his negotiating mandate, which must be agreed by all 27 EU member states.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said : “The foreign secretary noted this with regret and said the situation in Northern Ireland is a matter of internal peace and security for the United Kingdom, and if the EU would not show the requisite flexibility to help solve those issues, then as a responsible government we would have no choice but to act.”

The crunch discussion came hours after attorney general Suella Braverman revealed that she had received legal advice that it would be lawful to tear up parts of the protocol because of the “disproportionate and unreasonable” way it has been implemented by Brussels.

She has submitted evidence accusing the EU of undermining the Good Friday Agreement by creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea, and warned of “societal unrest” in Northern Ireland. Downing Street today refused to publish the advice received by Ms Braverman.

In her talks today with Mr Šefčovič, Ms Truss said that the protocol had become the “greatest obstacle” to forming a Northern Ireland executive, after the power-sharing arrangements were collapsed by the DUP.

The unionist party, which wants the protocol scrapped, has refused to enter into a new executive headed by Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, which became the largest group in the Northern Ireland Assembly in last week’s Stormont elections.

Ms Truss said that 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”.

Calling for “more pragmatism” from the Commission, she said the issues could be resolved, while still protecting the EU single market, by implementing UK proposals for goods destined for Northern Ireland to be sent through a light-touch “green channel” at customs, while close checks are reserved for those heading to the Republic.

Speaking after the phone talks, Mr Šefčovič said: “It continues to be of serious concern that the UK government intends to embark on the path of unilateral action.”

“I am convinced that only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action, effectively disapplying an international agreement such as the Protocol, is simply not acceptable.”

He added: “This would undermine trust between the EU and UK as well as compromise our ultimate objective – to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, while ensuring legal certainty and predictability for the people and businesses in Northern Ireland.

“Such unilateral action will also undermine the conditions which are essential for Northern Ireland to continue to have access to the EU single market for goods.

“The EU and the UK are partners facing the same global challenges where upholding the rule of law and living up to international obligations is a necessity. Working side-by-side in a constructive manner is of utmost importance.”

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