Irish foreign minister: UK in for ‘very difficult summer’ if it overrides Northern Ireland protocol

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has issued a warning to the British government not to disapply elements of the Northern Ireland protocol, warning of a “very difficult summer” if London takes unilateral action on part of the Brexit trade deal.

Speaking to POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook ahead of Monday’s meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, Coveney warned: “My message to the British government is crystal clear — to act unilaterally to break international law, to not respect the democratic decisions in Northern Ireland, would make matters significantly worse, not better, in terms of trying to solve the problems of the protocol.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads to Belfast on Monday to meet the leaders of the political parties, following the Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal to help form a power-sharing government unless its concerns about the protocol are addressed. Johnson said late Sunday night that the U.K. will unveil its “next steps” on the Northern Ireland protocol “in the coming days,” referring to domestic legislation seeking to override parts of the deal. 

In a Belfast Telegraph editorial on the eve of his trip, Johnson insisted the U.K. would “always keep the door wide open to genuine dialogue” but warned it would face a “necessity to act” if a shift in the bloc’s position on the protocol (beyond the one it pitched last October) isn’t forthcoming.

Give and take

Speaking of the EU’s threat of trade retaliations against any unilateral U.K. action, the Irish minister said Brussels first wants to find solutions to the protocol problems at hand. Experts also say that any trade retaliation by Brussels would be a long way off. But Coveney warned that consequences of unilateral action would be “a very difficult summer” and “unnecessary divisions and tensions.”

“The last thing the EU needs or wants right now is tension with the U.K.,” he said, noting the recent cooperation on Ukraine. “But if the British government decides to move forward with unilateral action which will not reflect the majority view in Northern Ireland, that will of course be a huge problem for the EU,” he added, noting that 53 of the 90 MLAs elected in the recent Northern Ireland election support the protocol. 

Coveney said the EU is prepared to move on the key demand of the unionist community in Northern Ireland: reducing checks on goods coming into the region from Great Britain. But to do that it needs better access than it currently has to relevant U.K. data on the goods coming in from Britain, something European Commissioner Maros Šefčovič suggested last week.

Greater access to data could unblock a key problem, Coveney said. Through “comprehensive labeling and real-time sharing of supply chain data … I think the EU can move to remove a significant amount of checks on goods that we can show are staying in Northern Ireland and are not a risk to the EU single market,” he said. 

While there has been more data-sharing by the U.K. in recent weeks than before, he said, “real-time data from reliable state sources in the U.K. as opposed to private companies is what’s required if the EU is going to move away from a reliance on lots of checks and look to other ways of managing risk.”

The need for consent

Coveney also challenged a key argument of the British government in recent weeks — that the protocol undermines the principle of consent enshrined in the Good Friday peace agreement.    

“People are misinterpreting — whether deliberate or not is up to others to decide — what the principle of consent is,” he said, noting that it refers to the future question of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. There is also the concept of cross-community support from both nationalists and unionists, which is required for a lot of domestic legislation, he noted.  

“The issue around the protocol are issues between the British government and the European Commission, which means that cross-community consent doesn’t actually apply. But having said that, I would be the first to acknowledge that we need to respond comprehensively if we can to the needs of the unionist community, and they are genuine concerns.”

Coveney is due to meet Šefčovič Monday, as well as speak to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. The Council of the EU’s working group on the U.K. meets Tuesday, while Šefčovič will brief EU ambassadors on the state of play on Wednesday.

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