HomeUK prepares trade war against EU: everything ready to break Irish protocol

UK prepares trade war against EU: everything ready to break Irish protocol

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Johnson wants to unilaterally suspend the agreement with Brussels, alleging new Brexit customs controls are endangering peace in Ulster.

A new war is brewing between London and Brussels. The drums are already beating and the first pawns could move as soon as next week. Downing Street is preparing a bill to unilaterally scrap key parts of the Ireland Protocol – a crucial piece of the Brexit deal – by suspending the checks on goods that now need to be carried out between Britain and Northern Ireland. Not that it caught anyone by surprise. In Westminster, it was said from the beginning that Boris Johnson never had any intention of complying with what was agreed with the EU. The fact that more than two years have elapsed since the divorce and the contentious controls have never been completely implemented is proof of this.

London and Brussels have been engaged in new negotiations for months. But there is no progress and the historic victory of the Sinn Féin republicans in the Belfast Assembly elections has only precipitated things. It is now all too easy for Downing Street to argue that it is not breaking international law, but protecting the peace in Ulster.

This Tuesday, in the so-called ‘Queen’s Speech’ – where the Government presents its legislative program – Prince Charles, limiting himself to reading the words written by the ministers, stressed that “The continued success and integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom is of paramount importance to my Government, including the internal economic bonds between all of its parts.” 

“My Government will prioritise support for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and its institutions, including through legislation to address the legacy of the past [Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill].” 

A priori, it does not seem like a threat as such to Brussels. But with the current British Executive, you always have to read between the lines.

According to The Times, the head of British diplomacy, Liz Truss, has asked officials to prepare the draft of a bill that could end up triggering a trade war with the bloc, at a time when the high cost of living is seriously affecting citizens: more than 2 million adults in the UK can no longer afford to eat every day.

Initially, the bill was intended to give ministers the power, in principle, to override the Irish Protocol. But now it goes further than expected because, as well as suspending controls, it would also remove the powers of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and all requirements for Northern Ireland companies to follow EU regulations, as they are now bound by Brexit. The bill could be introduced in the House of Commons – where the Conservatives have a large majority – as soon as next Tuesday. Officials have already warned Truss that the strategy could lead the EU to suspend all cooperation with the UK, except in Ukraine, and take legal action against the Executive.

The plans have created great division in the Cabinet itself. The head of the Treasury, Rishi Sunak, and the Communities Minister, Michael Gove, are opposed. The possibility of a trade war with the EU while the UK is on the verge of a possible recession is a really risky move. But Truss has been moving her cards for some time to position herself as the future leader of the Conservative Party and believes that this will help her gain more support in the far right-wing of the party.

For now, London has not officially given up negotiations with Brussels. In fact, Truss is scheduled to meet this Thursday with the EU Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, for a new appointment. However, government sources anonymously assure The Times that the head of British diplomacy was willing to go ahead with unilateral action after losing faith in what she calls “a computer that constantly says no [referring to his interlocutor]”.

It was Johnson who decided to take the UK out of the single market and customs union, it was Johnson who decided to ‘move’ the border dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland to the Irish Sea, leaving the British province with a different status than from the rest of the UK. It was Johnson who signed controls that everyone knew would create tensions between Catholics and Protestants and bureaucratic problems.

The shadow of Belfast

And yet, London now accuses Brussels of being “too intransigent”. Despite the fact that the EU has already offered to eliminate up to 80% of the controls on food arriving in Northern Ireland, in addition to having the necessary paperwork, Downing Street defends that the Irish Protocol does not work and that the chaos in Belfast now is proof of that.

After the historic victory of the Catholics of Sinn Féin, the Protestants of the DUP now refuse to be part of the coalition government that both communities must respect by the Good Friday Agreements of 1998. The unionists feel completely betrayed by Johnson and threaten to paralyze the Belfast Assembly indefinitely until the Irish Protocol is not changed.

After the conversation held this Tuesday between Johnson and the ‘taoiseach’ of Ireland, Micheál Martin, the Number 10 underlined the serious situation that is now being experienced in Northern Ireland. 

“Despite repeated efforts by the UK Government over many months to fix the situation, including sections relating to the movement of goods and governance, the European Commission has failed to take the necessary steps to help address the economic disruption and policy on the ground,” he stressed in a statement. “The Prime Minister reiterated that the UK Government would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions were not found,” he added.

For his part, a spokesman for the Executive pointed out: “Our focus has been, and will continue to be, to preserve peace and stability in Northern Ireland. No decisions have yet been made on the way forward. However, the situation now is very serious. We have always been clear that steps will be taken to protect the Belfast [Good Friday] agreement if no solutions are found to fix the protocol.”

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar – who reached an agreement with Johnson on the Protocol in October 2019 – points out that the United Kingdom is using threats to gain influence in the negotiations and warned that London could not now breach the international treaty. 

“If that’s his approach, then we have a real problem here,” he told RTÉ television. “It’s one thing to get involved in a little bit of saber rattling … but if they really went that route, it would be very serious,” he warned.

Image Credit: Getty

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