Britain demanded on Wednesday that the European Union agree to rewrite a deal overseeing problematic post-Brexit trade involving Northern Ireland just a year after it was agreed with the bloc, a call immediately rejected by Brussels.
The Northern Ireland protocol was part of the Brexit settlement, backed by prime minister Boris Johnson, that finally sealed Britain’s divorce from the EU four years after voters backed leaving in a referendum.
Businesses in Northern Ireland say it is damaging trade, and some pro-British groups have protested at what they say is a weakening of ties with Britain, raising concerns about a return to the violence which plagued the province for three decades.
“We cannot go on as we are,” Brexit minister David Frost told the UK parliament on Wednesday.
He said London wanted a new “balance” to eliminate EU oversight of the accord, and that Britain already had the right to unilaterally deviate from parts of it.
EU rejection European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic was clear that the protocol could not be redrawn, saying Mr Johnson and Mr Frost had negotiated it.
“We will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol,” he said. “Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance.”
The protocol addresses the biggest conundrum of the divorce: how to ensure the peace brought to the North by the 1998 Belfast Agreement – by maintaining an open border – without opening a back door through the neighbouring Republic to the EU’s single market of 450 million people.
It essentially requires checks on goods between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the EU customs area. These have proved burdensome to companies and an anathema to unionists, who are fiercely supportive of the province remaining part of the United Kingdom.
The Brexit deal was signed and approved by the British parliament in December 2020.
Continue to engage But Mr Frost said the arrangement was not operating as Britain had expected and there was justification for invoking Article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side to dispense with its terms if they are proving unexpectedly harmful.
“Nevertheless… we have concluded that is not the right moment to do so,” he said. “We see an opportunity to proceed differently, to find a new path to seek to agree with the EU through negotiations, a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all.”
He said he hoped that the EU would study British proposals constructively to find a positive way forward.
Despite repeated British complaints, the EU has refused to amend the protocol, fearing that the hard-to-police frontier with EU member the Republic could allow goods to enter its single market without meeting its regulatory standards.
“We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today,” Mr Sefcovic said in a statement. “We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland.”
‘Not unusual to renegotiate’ Much of what Britain has suggested as an alternative system was rejected by the EU during the four years of often tortuous talks. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said any solution must remain within the terms of the agreed protocol.
Mr Frost said Britain wanted a “normal treaty framework” that was “more conducive to the sense of genuine and equitable partnership”, and would not be policed by EU institutions and the European Court of Justice.
“We don’t see what is wrong with that. Anyone would think that it was a highly unusual thing to renegotiate a treaty; of course it is not,” he told lawmakers.
His stance was hailed as a significant step forward by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland.
.@J_Donaldson_MP – the Government’s NI Protocol command paper and statement is a “welcome and significant, and important first step,” but assurances are needed that “negotiations with the EU will not be dragged out, and if unsuccessful, the Government will invoke Article 16…” pic.twitter.com/CAEDH3lHOM
— DUP (@duponline) July 21, 2021
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the UK Commons: “Tinkering around the edges simply doesn’t work and I trust the EU will approach new negotiations in good faith and recognise the need to enter into new arrangements that remove the Irish Sea border.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said it was welcome to see movement in the direction of finding “pragmatic, workable solutions”.
However, Sinn Féin’s Brexit spokesman Declan Kearney said the UK government could not be allowed to renege on international law.
It is not acceptable for the Tories to adopt an a la carte approach towards the protocol, to rewrite history
He added: “The British government has agreed and ratified all elements of the protocol with the European Commission. It should now stop the evasion, and get on with its implementation.
Ireland against renegotiation as UK demands change…
“It is not acceptable for the Tories to adopt an a la carte approach towards the protocol, to rewrite history and now attempt a renegotiation.
“If the protocol is to achieve its goals, then it needs to be implemented fully, not hollowed out by the British Government.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the UK government’s statement was the “latest in a car crash attempt to distance themselves from an agreement they negotiated, campaigned for and signed up to”.
Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said the statement was “full of bluster and a re-writing of history”.