The UK is heading for a trade clash with Brussels over plans to bring forward legislation to unilaterally scrap parts of the Brexit deal after talks over Northern Ireland’s trading rules ended in deadlock and recrimination.
Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, said on Thursday that Britain would have “no choice but to act”, but the EU warned that any move would force it to restrict Northern Ireland’s access to the single market for goods.
British officials expect Boris Johnson to set out as early as next week plans for a bill to disapply parts of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol the prime minister signed just 18 months ago.
Brussels has warned of trade reprisals in the event of Britain rewriting the protocol, raising fears in the UK Treasury that the country could face further economic damage in the midst of a cost of living crisis.
After a difficult call with Truss, Maroš Šefčovič, European commission vice-president, said that unilateral UK action was now likely. It would “put a huge question mark over access of Northern Ireland to the single market. This is a very serious issue,” he told a joint assembly of UK and EU parliamentarians in Brussels.
Under the terms of the protocol, which was agreed to ensure there was no trade border on the island of Ireland, goods produced in Northern Ireland can enter the EU without checks, which has helped the region’s economy outperform much of the rest of the UK.
Johnson was warned when he negotiated the arrangements that they would create political problems in the region, as the protocol creates a trade border in the Irish Sea. Some British suppliers say they can no longer ship popular foodstuffs from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Commission officials said they had no wish to impose border controls on the island of lreland but had to protect the single market, which allows goods to circulate freely within 27 countries once they have crossed the union’s external border, and Ireland’s place in it.
“The last thing we want is for Northern Ireland to lose access to the single market,” one said.
Washington has called on both sides to show “leadership” and resolve the issue by negotiation, while Johnson also faces the prospect of months of parliamentary rebellions on the issue.
Truss is said by Tory MPs to be embarking on a “charm offensive” with leading UK political figures to explain Britain’s reasons for wanting to rip up parts of the protocol, which only came into effect last year.
But resistance in the Commons and, especially, the House of Lords is expected to be fierce.
“Some of us will want to underline the damage to Britain’s reputation from taking this step now, in the middle of the most serious conflict in Europe since 1945,” said Lord Peter Ricketts, former UK national security adviser.
The UK government has received legal advice that it would be justified in overriding parts of the protocol in order to support the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the region.
Truss told Šefčovič that fundamental changes were needed to the trading rules, which are opposed by Northern Ireland’s pro-UK unionist parties.
She argued that unless checks on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland were greatly reduced, there was no prospect of the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, rejoining the region’s power-sharing executive at Stormont.
London believes that reforms to the agreement suggested by the EU in October do not go far enough.
But EU member states have insisted they are not prepared to renegotiate an international treaty.
“The EU simply expects that international agreement to be honoured and is willing to be extremely flexible in terms of how it is honoured to try to accommodate what are genuine concerns in Northern Ireland from business people and from the unionist community in particular,” Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister of foreign affairs, told RTE radio on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Belfast