EU stance on NI Protocol ‘hardened’ in face of UK threat of unilateral action

Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney warned Boris Johnson against tabling legislation that would override aspects of the trade arrangements.

09 June 2022

The EU’s stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol has “hardened” in the face of the UK threat to unilaterally scrap part of the arrangements, an Irish government minister has warned.

Foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney urged the UK Government to step back from its plan to publish domestic legislation that would override elements of the post-Brexit protocol governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Government is expected to table its controversial Bill in Westminster next week amid reports of differences within the Cabinet on how far-reaching the legislative proposals should be.

Mr Coveney and Irish Premier Micheal Martin are holding talks with Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer in Dublin on Thursday to discuss the ongoing stand-off over arrangements that require regulatory checks and customs declarations on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Keir Starmer visit to Dublin and Belfast
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the Long Room in Trinity College during his visit to Dublin (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Ahead of the meetings, Sir Keir accused Boris Johnson of taking a “wrecking ball” to UK relations with Ireland and the EU.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is next week expected to use domestic law to override aspects of the protocol, which was jointly agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

The UK is moving without the consent of the EU to change the terms of the international treaty in a bid to reduce the checks the protocol requires on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.

The EU has made clear that such a move would represent a breach of international law and could prompt retaliatory action from the bloc.

Mr Coveney said publishing the legislation would “cause a lot more problems than it solves” in respect of Anglo-Irish relations and UK-EU relations.

“In many ways from my experience, and I’ve been to Finland to Sweden to Estonia to Latvia, and I’ve been speaking to many other EU foreign ministers, in many ways in the last number of weeks the EU position has hardened because I don’t think there’s a single capital across the EU and anybody in the European Commission that believes, at the moment anyway, that the British Government is serious about a negotiated solution, because there is no signal coming from London that they are.

“Instead, all of the signals are about unilateral action, making demands with no willingness to compromise, and that has hardened the EU response to what they’re seeing coming out of London now.

“So, we need to find a way to arrest this rot in relationships and instead to look to compromise, to negotiation, to dialogue, to solve what are genuine issues and concerns.”

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to publish the draft legislation next week (Niall Carson/PA)

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister denied the Government had failed to consult one of its senior legal advisers over plans to unilaterally scrap elements of the protocol.

Mr Johnson rejected the claim that First Treasury Counsel Sir James Eadie, the Government’s independent barrister on major legal issues, had not been asked to give a view on whether the Bill due to be tabled at Westminster would breach international law.

Answering an urgent question on the issue in the Commons on Thursday, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly refused to directly say whether the First Treasury Counsel was consulted on the plans, citing a convention not to discuss legal advice given to Government.

However, Mr Cleverly insisted the Government was “confident” that its proposals are legal.

“The Government is confident that our actions are lawful under international law and in line with longstanding convention that we do not set out internal legal deliberations,” he said.

On a visit to Trinity College in Dublin, Sir Keir claimed the Prime Minister was too distracted by his own leadership travails to focus on the protocol impasse.

“Of course there are challenges with the protocol, but I think that we have faced much greater challenges than that in our shared history and I think that with flexibility on both sides, with good faith, statecraft, and trust around the negotiating table, we can deal with the remaining issues,” he said.

“My concern is that we have a Prime Minister who doesn’t have those attributes. Trust is very important in all of this and this Prime Minister does not have the trust, or I fear he doesn’t have the trust, to negotiate in the way that I actually think would lead to a solution to the problems.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meets President Michael D Higgins in Aras An Uachtarain during his visit to Dublin
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meets President Michael D Higgins in Aras An Uachtarain during his visit to Dublin (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“We’ve faced bigger problems than this. With good faith, statecraft and trust around the negotiating table, which is what a Labour government would bring, these problems can be overcome. But a Prime Minister without those attributes taking a wrecking ball to the relationship is not going to help anybody.”

Commenting on Mr Johnson, Sir Keir said: “He’s doing everything he can to save his own skin rather than focusing on the issue here, which is how do we get people around the negotiating table, flexibility on both sides so we can overcome the remaining problems.”

Mr Coveney said it appeared that the UK Government was unsure over what to include in its Bill.

“There were attempts, certainly, we think to harden up some of the language in the proposed legislation this week, which now seems to have been reversed again – we simply don’t know,” he said.

“We’ll have to wait and see. But, of course, our real message is ‘please don’t go there’.”

Mr Coveney said the last thing Ireland and the EU wanted was “tension and unnecessary rancour” in their relationship with the UK at a time when the focus should be on working together on issues such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I just want to reinforce what the Taoiseach (Mr Martin) said this week when he said that should that legislation be published, it really will represent a new low in British-Irish relations since the Good Friday Agreement was signed,” he said.

“My message to the British Government is a very clear one, which is that if you are genuinely interested in negotiated solutions to these problems, and there are problems in terms of the protocol and its implementation, well then let’s see some evidence as to a willingness to negotiate seriously those solutions through compromise, through flexibility.”

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