Britain on Wednesday warned it was willing to suspend part of its Brexit deal with Brussels unless the EU agrees to a wholesale overhaul of trading rules for Northern Ireland, escalating tensions between the two sides.
Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary, told MPs he wanted to negotiate a new settlement with the EU — but held in reserve the possibility of the UK suspending the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement.
Britain wants to eliminate most of the checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are mandated under the protocol.
Lewis said it was clear that “the circumstances exist” already to justify the suspension of the protocol, but added: “We have come to the conclusion this is not the right moment to do so.”
The UK proposals for reforming the operation of the protocol are likely to be criticised in Brussels, and Joe Biden’s US administration has warned it is watching to ensure any moves by Boris Johnson’s government do not imperil the Northern Ireland peace process.
Under the protocol agreed by Johnson in 2019, all goods shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must follow the EU’s rules for customs and agrifood products, resulting in checks on the Irish Sea. The Brexit deal sought to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Lord David Frost, Cabinet Office minister, has described the arrangements on the Irish Sea trade border as “unsustainable”, telling MPs this week it was necessary to “hugely reduce or eliminate barriers” created by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, Frost said the UK government had tried to operate the protocol in “good faith”, but added that a new approach was needed. “Put simply we cannot go on as we are,” he told peers.
Frost said a government command paper outlined a “new balance” under which goods would be able to circulate more freely within the UK customs territory, as well as ensuring that full processes are applied to products destined for the EU.
“The difficulties we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU which reflects our strong common interests and values,” he added.
“Instead of that relationship, we are seeing one which is punctuated with legal challenges and characterised by disagreement and mistrust. We do not want that pattern to be set.”
Britain wants Brussels to agree to a dual-standards regime that would allow goods that conform to UK rules to circulate freely in Northern Ireland alongside EU-compliant products, so long as they were labelled as only for use in the region, according to people with knowledge of the proposals.
The UK proposals also include an “honesty box” approach, where companies that said their goods were destined only for sale and use in Northern Ireland should be exempted from checks on the Irish Sea border.
Another strand of the proposals would seek to remove any role for the European Commission or the European Court of Justice in the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The government paper sets up a clash between the UK and Brussels when a series of “grace periods” — waivers on checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland including chilled meat — expire at the end of September.
Ireland’s European affairs minister Thomas Byrne told the BBC: “We’re going to listen carefully to what the British government have to say.
“We’re willing to discuss any creative solutions within the confines of the protocol but we have to recognise as well that Britain decided itself to leave the single market of the European Union, to apply trade rules, to apply red tape to its goods that are leaving Britain, to goods that are coming into Britain.”
Marks and Spencer chair Archie Norman warned on Monday the company was already cutting Christmas products in Northern Ireland due to concerns about post-Brexit checks.
He told the BBC that the checks would mean higher prices and less choice, and urged a “common sense approach to enforcement”.
In a letter to Frost, Norman said the current customs arrangements were “totally unsuited and were never designed for a modern fresh food supply chain between closely intertwined trading partners”.