Boris Johnson’s government is on a collision course with the EU after signalling its intention to announce plans next week to tear up post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The UK prime minister told his Irish counterpart Micheál Martin on Tuesday that the current agreement with the EU was “not sustainable in its current form”, ignoring longstanding appeals from EU capitals and Brussels not to take unilateral action.
In what risks being seen as a major escalation of tensions between London and Brussels, two senior government insiders said the UK was preparing to announce legislation to rescind elements of the Northern Ireland protocol as soon as next week “unless the EU radically changes its approach”.
The UK threat was met with immediate warnings from Brussels and major EU capitals that the EU had no intention of renegotiating the fundamentals of the agreement, which leaves Northern Ireland following EU rules for trading in goods, creating a border in the Irish Sea.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said any unilateral move to unravel the protocol would have an effect beyond EU-UK relations.
“No one should unilaterally cancel, break or in any way attack the settlement we have agreed together,” he said, speaking alongside his Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, who restated EU warnings that unilateral UK action could ultimately lead to a trade war between London and Brussels.
“Our message is quite clear: Don’t touch this . . . If that agreement would be revoked, then I would think that the whole system will be revoked. I would not see any other solution,” De Croo said.
In Brussels, Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president, rejected Johnson’s arguments that the protocol needed to be altered, or scrapped.
“The protocol, as a cornerstone of the [Brexit] withdrawal agreement, is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option. The European Union is united in this position,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
The pressure to resolve longstanding differences over the protocol has been reignited by the refusal of the region’s pro-UK Democratic Unionist party to enter a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland following last week’s regional assembly elections until the issues over the protocol are addressed.
The DUP says the trade arrangements in the protocol are undermining the region’s place within the UK and must be scrapped. The tug of war over the formation of an executive raises the prospect of months of political limbo, without a fully functioning devolved executive in Northern Ireland.
The political tension has been heightened by the nationalist party Sinn Féin emerging as the biggest party in the region for the first time.
In his call with Ireland’s taoiseach, Johnson told Irish leader Martin that the situation with the protocol was “now very serious” and was undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which secured peace in the region after three decades of conflict.
The prime minister, Downing Street said to Martin that the UK’s “repeated efforts” had not succeeded in securing necessary moves from Brussels and that “the UK government would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found”.
Martin appealed to Johnson to focus on working with the EU on “the practical issues arising from the implementation and operation of the protocol”. Ireland is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
“What is required now is a proper reciprocation of that effort and good faith offered by the European Union,” he said in the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament.
But Irish officials expressed a feeling of déjà vu, even though details of the proposals remained unclear. “We’ve been here so many times in the past,” said one.
Asked if the EU would compromise, Thomas Byrne, Irish minister for European affairs, told RTÉ television on Tuesday evening that the protocol itself was the compromise. “The European Commission has proposals on the table to reduce the checks going into Northern Ireland.
“What he [Šefčovič] wants is constructive discussion from the British. He said there will be no changes to the protocol document itself but there is a huge opportunity to make adjustments within the protocol and the British so far haven’t grasped those opportunities.”
London is drafting legislation that would allow the UK to abandon key sections of the protocol that cover trade and subsidy policy.
The focus of the proposed legislation, which could take many months to become law, would be to “disaggregate” goods destined for Northern Ireland and those heading to the Republic of Ireland, according to UK officials.
Michelle O’Neill, the region’s first minister-in-waiting from Sinn Féin, wrote on Twitter after speaking with Johnson on Tuesday that “the public here can’t be a pawn in the British government’s game of chicken with the EU”.
Senior UK government insiders said that foreign secretary Liz Truss was expected to speak to Šefčovič “in the coming days” about the protocol. The pair last spoke 12 days ago.
However, in a clear sign of the UK’s determination to confront the EU over trading arrangements, Truss released a statement on Tuesday night warning that EU proposals to ease the implementation of the protocol could actually “worsen” the deal.
“The current EU proposals fail to properly address the real issues affecting Northern Ireland and in some cases would take us backward,” she said, adding that the protocol had disrupted trade and now posed “a threat to peace and stability”.
She added: “Our preference has always been for a negotiated solution but [we] will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found.”
EU diplomatic sources predicted that the latest UK intervention appeared deliberately provocative and would be “very poorly received” in Brussels.
Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels