Truss warns EU it will act on Northern Ireland Protocol as Attorney General says UK action is legal

Thu 12 May 2022
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
Trade News

Liz Truss has told the EU that the UK would have “no choice but to act” if it did not widen its mandate on talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The foreign secretary spoke with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic by phone this morning (Thursday 12 May) – the first since the Northern Ireland Assembly election last week – and told him the protocol was “the greatest obstacle to forming a Northern Ireland Executive”.

According to a government spokesperson reported by RTE Europe editor Tony Connelly, Truss said the European Commission “bore a responsibility to show more pragmatism and ensure the protocol delivered on its original objectives”.

However, in a statement after the call, Sefcovic said there was no room to expand the EU negotiating mandate or introduce new proposals to reduce the overall level of trade friction.

'Destroying trust'

As reported in Politico, Sefcovic warned that unilateral action against the protocol will not only destroy trust between the EU and the UK as well as damaging stability in NI but would “also undermine the conditions which are essential for Northern Ireland to continue to have access to the EU single market for goods.”

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

Legislation on its way

The Telegraph reports that unless the EU shows more flexibility, the UK government will unveil new legislation to allow ministers to override large parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal.

Speaking in Sweden yesterday, Boris Johnson prioritised the Good Friday Agreement over the Protocol following NI elections in which the DUP came second to Sinn Fein.

NI’s unionist party has since said it will not nominate ministers for the Stormont Assembly until its concerns about the protocol were resolved.

UK stability first

Johnson said it was crucial for the stability the UK that arrangements commanded cross-community support.

“Plainly the Northern Ireland Protocol fails to do that and we need to sort it out,” he added.

New legal advice

The BBC reports that attorney general Suella Braverman has provided new legal advice that could allow the UK to override contentious parts of the protocol – a change to previous advice which said the opposite.

Braverman has advised that legislation would be legal because the EU’s implementation of the protocol is “disproportionate and unreasonable”.

The advice also said that the EU is undermining the Good Friday Agreement by creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea and fuelling civil unrest, reports the Times.

The process of changing the trade arrangements is likely to take more than a year, with the House of Lords expected to try to block and delay the legislation.

‘No renegotiation’

According to the FT, the EU has told member states that “renegotiation of the protocol” was “not an option”, adding that it would respond to any unilateral UK move “using the legal and political tools” at its disposal.

The EU could restart legal action on the UK for failing to fully impose full checks on traders, which were paused last year to allow talks to continue.

Bloomberg reports that EU retaliation could suspend its Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the UK, freezing the privileged access GB companies have to the EU single market – effectively returning GB to a no-deal Brexit. It would also halt talks over the status of Gibraltar, a source said.

Any EU decision would require agreement from the 27 EU governments and would lead to a cooling off period before tariffs, quotas and other barriers to trade kicked in. The EU could terminate the whole deal or target specific industries.

International standing

Voices speaking out against the UK’s proposed actions include former PM Theresa May, who said it would harm Britain’s reputation for abiding by international law, reports the Guardian.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, told RTE that the EU expected the UK to abide by international law.

“If it undermines a protocol that is about protecting the integrity of the EU single market, then the EU can't ignore that,” Coveney said. “The EU wants to focus on compromise, flexibility, partnership, solving these problems.”

US weighs in

US president Joe Biden has called on the prime minister to show “leadership” and press ahead with negotiations, reports the Standard.

According to findings from British economic think tank the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the Protocol is helping, not hurting, growth and profitability in Northern Ireland because of its advantageous access to EU markets, reports Politico.