The UK has said it wants to substantially rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol, which Boris Johnson signed up to in 2019, claiming “we cannot go on as we are” due to the “febrile political climate” in the region.
But Lord Frost, the Brexit secretary, stopped short of ripping up Johnson’s deal entirely or triggering the article 16 provision – which enables either the UK or EU to suspend parts of the deal.
“These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol,” Frost said. “We do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face”.
In a foreword to a 28-page document outlining their plans, Frost and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said the proposals will “not dispense with many of its [Northern Ireland protocol] concepts” – and will instead create “a stronger long-term foundation to achieve shared interests”.
The situation in Northern Ireland is “unsatisfactory” to “all sides”, they added. Retailers including Marks & Spencer have warned that the current arrangements mean some products will not be able to be sold in Northern Ireland.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Frost spoke of the need for a “new balance” in the controversial protocol, which will address the disruption experienced by businesses since Johnson’s deal put up trade barriers in the Irish Sea earlier this year.
He added that negotiations with Brussels “have not got to the heart of the problem”, calling instead for a temporary “standstill” period – including the suspension of all legal action pursued by the EU and the continuation of grace periods to avoid confrontation over chilled meats, including sausages.
The UK is also seeking to scrap the involvement of the European court of justice in policing the protocol, a suggestion which is unlikely to be well-received in Brussels.
Frost said the UK remains “willing to explore exceptional arrangements around data sharing and cooperation” and “penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland”.
“The difficulties we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU,” Frost said, adding that there is still time to avoid triggering article 16. “We concluded that it is not the right moment to do so,” he added.
“It is not time to establish a new balance, which both the UK and the EU can invest in, to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU.”
Biden is watching
Earlier on Wednesday, the US and Ireland urged Johnson to resolve issues around Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements within the terms of the existing arrangements.
Any attempt to water down the implementation of the agreement – signed by Johnson and negotiated by Frost – is likely to be met with a backlash from Brussels.
US President Joe Biden is proud of his Irish roots and his administration is taking a keen interest in the issue.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said “it’s something that we’re watching”, adding: “We do support a close relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and we encourage them to negotiate within the existing mechanisms when differences do arise.”
“We’ve consistently said that we welcome the provisions in both the trade and co-operation agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol between the UK and the European Union, which, importantly, help to protect the gains of the Belfast and Good Friday Agreement,” he told reporters.
Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, a former secretary of state, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the president is “deeply immersed” in the issue.