Britain on Wednesday demanded that the European Union agree to rewrite a deal overseeing troubled post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland just a year after it agreed with the bloc, an appeal that was immediately rejected by Brussels. .
The Northern Ireland protocol was part of the Brexit settlement, backed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that eventually sealed Britain’s separation from the EU, four years after voters voted to leave in a referendum.
Businesses in Northern Ireland say it hurts trade, and some pro-British groups have protested what they believe is a weakening of ties with Britain, expressing concern about a return to the violence that has perpetuated the province for three decades. long ravaged.
“We cannot continue as we are,” Brexit minister David Frost told parliament on Wednesday.
He said London wanted a new “balance” to eliminate EU oversight of the deal, and that Britain already had the right to unilaterally deviate from parts of it.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic was clear that the protocol could not be redrafted, saying Johnson and Frost had negotiated it.
“We will not agree to renegotiate the protocol,” he said. “Respecting international legal obligations is paramount.”
The protocol tackles the biggest conundrum of divorce: how to secure the delicate peace brought to the province by a 1998 US-brokered peace accord – by maintaining an open border – without opening a back door through neighboring Ireland to the EU internal market of 450 million people.
It essentially requires controls on goods between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the customs territory of the EU. These have proved burdensome for businesses and anathema to union members, who are strong supporters of the county that is part of the UK.
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The Brexit deal was signed and approved by the British Parliament in December 2020.
But Frost said the settlement did not work as Britain expected and that there was justification for invoking Article 16 of the protocol, which allows both sides to waive the terms if they unexpectedly turn out to be harmful.
“Nevertheless…we have come to the conclusion that now is not the right time to do that,” he said. “We see an opportunity to do things differently, to find a new way to negotiate a deal with the EU, to rebalance our arrangements for Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all.”
He said he hoped the EU would constructively study Britain’s proposals to find a positive way forward.
Despite repeated UK complaints, the EU has refused to change the protocol, fearing that the difficult-to-control border with EU member state Ireland could lead to goods entering the single market without meeting legal standards.
“We will continue to work with the UK, including on the suggestions made today,” Sefcovic said in a statement. “We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, for the benefit of all communities in Northern Ireland.”
Reuters had reported Monday that Johnson threatened unilateral action.
‘Not unusual to renegotiate’
Much of what Britain has proposed as an alternative system has been rejected by the EU during four years of often arduous talks. Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said any solution must remain within the terms of the agreed protocol.
Frost said Britain wanted a “normal treaty framework” that was “more conducive to a sense of genuine and fair partnership”, and that would not be overseen by EU institutions and the European Court of Justice.
“We don’t see what’s wrong with that. Anyone would think it was highly unusual to renegotiate a treaty; of course it isn’t,” he told lawmakers.
His stance was hailed as a major step forward by the Democratic Unionist Party, which shares power in Northern Ireland’s devolved government.
While controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain have been relatively lenient so far, major retailers say they have struggled to cope and may need to move supply chains from Britain to the EU.
Frost called for a “standstill period” that would extend current grace periods and freeze existing legal action.
Britain has already unilaterally extended a grace period to reduce controls on shipments of refrigerated meat products, and the EU later agreed it could apply until September to end a dispute called the “sausage war” is called.
Marks & Spencer, one of Britain’s largest retailers, said additional paperwork had made it difficult to get goods to Ireland and France since Britain formally left the EU’s single market on January 1 – and that once full controls were introduced for Northern Ireland, this should also expect prices to rise and some items to be discontinued.
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said a total collapse of the protocol could lead to tariffs.
“Any solution must be agreed with the EU, because without it there can be no stability,” said director Aodhán Connolly.
April saw some of the worst riots in the province since the 1998 accord in unionized communities fueled by anger over the protocol. Pro-British paramilitary groups also told Johnson in March that they are suspending support for the peace deal over concerns over the Brexit deal.
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