LONDON — The U.K. and EU “cannot go on as we are” in Northern Ireland post-Brexit, the British minister handling the implementation of last year’s deal said on Wednesday.
Cabinet Office minister David Frost told lawmakers that the U.K. government had concluded Britain could justify overriding arrangements for Northern Ireland agreed as part of the Brexit deal, but will hold off on doing so for now.
The European Commission swiftly made clear it could “not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol.”
Article 16, a mechanism that once triggered allows both sides to unilaterally override parts of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, could be justified, Frost told the House of Lords. But he made clear London has concluded now is not the right moment to do so.
Frost instead called for a “new balance” to ensure goods can circulate much more freely within the U.K. customs territory while ensuring full processes are applied on goods destined for the EU. He pushed for an end to EU institutions and the European Court of Justice policing goods’ access to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.
The U.K. minister urged a return to a “normal treaty framework similar to all our other international agreements,” but said the U.K. would also recognize its “share of responsibility” in helping the EU to protect its single market.
“Exceptional arrangements” around data sharing were needed, he said, as well as cooperation and penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move products that do not meet EU standards from Northern Ireland to Ireland.
Frost urged a “standstill period,” with grace periods on checks maintained, and a freeze on existing legal action against the U.K., warning burdens on business will only worsen if action is not taken.
Frost said Britain had “worked with the EU to try to address” challenges in the way the protocol is working, but said discussions so far had “not got to the heart of the problem.” He told lawmakers: “Put very simply, we cannot go on as we are.”
Northern Ireland has become a key source of tension between Britain and the EU in recent months.
Both sides agreed to the protocol after Britain’s departure from the bloc in order to shift enforcement of the EU’s single market rules from the politically-sensitive border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland’s ports instead.
But the arrangement has been deeply unpopular with British unionists, incensed by new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
The Westminster government has in turn accused the EU of being inflexible in its oversight of the protocol, pointing to disruption faced by businesses working in Northern Ireland.
Brussels has been angered by Britain’s move to unilaterally postpone the introduction of some checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, prompting the European Commission to launch legal action earlier this year.
In the new paper setting out London’s thinking, the U.K. calls for a trusted trader scheme to allow firms moving goods to Northern Ireland from Great Britain to declare whether the final destination of those goods is Northern Ireland or Ireland. Under its proposal, only those bound for Ireland would require full customs formalities.
There is “increasing evidence” of “extremely limited risks to the single market in practice,” it argues.
For animal and plant health checks, the U.K. suggests applying EU law for goods going to Ireland and using “risk-based and intelligence-led controls” on consignments going to Northern Ireland. There would be “appropriate labelling requirements” so that goods could only be sold in the U.K., it says, and increased surveillance with penalties for non-compliant traders.
On another contentious issue of medicines, the U.K. says the “simplest way forward may be to remove all medicines from the scope of the Protocol entirely.”
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson urged the U.K. government not “drag out” talks with EU, and to commit to triggering Article 16. The latest announcement was, he said, a “significant step in the right direction.”
‘Stability and predictability’
But the U.K.’s fresh attempt to press for changes to the protocol met with a lukewarm reception in both Brussels and Dublin.
European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, who oversees post-Brexit relations with the U.K. on behalf of the bloc, said the EU would “continue to engage” with London, including “on the suggestions made today.”
He added: “We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol.” Both sides, he stressed, should prioritize “stability and predictability in Northern Ireland.”
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney pointed out that the protocol had been “jointly agreed by this U.K. government and the European Union,” adding in a statement: “It is jointly owned by them, and must be jointly implemented by them.”
Coveney stressed that any solutions “must take place within the framework of the Protocol and the principles that underpin it,” and talked up the “significant opportunities” the arrangement offers to businesses and jobs in Northern Ireland.
One senior official in the Irish government was more damning still, saying the document read like “one long argument explaining why the British are entirely justified to seek to resile from their own commitments – commitments freely made and signed off only a matter of months ago.”
The same official warned trust was now “in critically short supply because of the unilateral actions the U.K. already has taken to retreat from its clear protocol obligations.”
Fine Gael, the most pro-European party in Ireland’s coalition government, dismissed the U.K. move as an “attempted Brexit backtrack” that was “both simplistic and disappointing.”
“The protocol isn’t going anywhere,” said Neale Richmond, Fine Gael’s spokesman on European affairs, noting it was a binding treaty between the U.K. and EU. “With respect, any assertion that the protocol can be abolished is fanciful. That’s not going to happen.”
This story was updated to include reaction from the European Commission and the Irish government