Johnson says UK will act if EU refuses to give way over protocol ahead of Belfast visit

The British prime minister is due to visit Belfast on Monday
Johnson says UK will act if EU refuses to give way over protocol ahead of Belfast visit

Gavin Cordon and David Young, PA

Updated 8.30am. Additional reporting by Vivienne Clarke.

British prime minister Boris Johnson has said the UK will have a “necessity to act” if the EU is unwilling to reach a compromise in the deepening crisis over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Johnson - who is due to travel to Belfast on Monday for emergency talks with the parties in Northern Ireland - said the UK government remained open to “genuine dialogue” with Brussels.

But amid fears of a looming trade war, he said that if there was no movement on the EU side, the UK government will set out its “next steps” in a statement to parliament “in the coming days”.

His warning comes amid reports ministers could table emergency legislation as early as this week to override the protocol which requires customs checks on goods moving from Britain and Northern Ireland.

 

EU leaders have said such a move would violate Britain’s international treaty obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement signed by Mr Johnson and would lead to retaliatory measures.

In the meantime, the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland remain suspended with the DUP refusing to join Sinn Féin in a new Executive, or to allow the election of a speaker to the Assembly unless there is fundamental change to the protocol.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson said there was still a “sensible landing spot” where the interests of all sides are protected – including the integrity of the EU single market, which the protocol is designed to maintain. However, he said that would require movement on the part of the EU.

“We have been told by the EU that it is impossible to make the changes to the protocol text to actually solve these problems in negotiations – because there is no mandate to do so,” he said.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said there will a ‘consequence’ if the UK overrides the protocol (Rebecca Black/PA)

“We will always keep the door wide open to genuine dialogue. There is without question a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected.

“I hope the EU’s position changes. If it does not, there will be a necessity to act.

“The government has a responsibility to provide assurance that the consumers, citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland are protected in the long-term.

“We will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to parliament in the coming days”.

 

On Sunday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warned there would be a “consequence” if the UK took unilateral action in breach of its obligations under international law.

He said such a move would be “deeply harmful” to Ireland-UK relations and could “fundamentally undermine” the functioning of the institutions of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“The last thing the EU wants, the last thing that Ireland wants, is tension with the UK, particularly at the moment given what’s happening in Ukraine, Russian aggression, and the need to work together on an international stage,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

“Unfortunately, it has been the briefings that have come from the British government this week that have raised a real red flag in Dublin and in Brussels because the British government is now threatening to break international law to break a treaty that they signed with the EU.”

But in a round of broadcast interviews with the BBC and Sky News, Britain's business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng hit out at “irresponsible” threats of a trade war, saying it would take “a very long time” for the EU to implement new tariffs.

“It is up to the EU. We think it would be completely self-defeating if they went into a trade war, but that is up to them,” he said.

“Any tariff situation would have to go to arbitrators. It is not something they can do willy-nilly, arbitrarily.”

Downing Street said Mr Johnson will use a series of private meetings in Belfast on Monday to deliver a “tough message” that any “fix” to the protocol must involve the parties coming together to form an Executive and Assembly.

He is expected to say that while the UK government will “play its part to ensure political stability”, politicians must “get back to work” so they can deliver on “bread-and-butter issues” for the voters.

However, ahead of his visit, Sinn Féin – which is now the biggest party in the Assembly following the elections – accusedMr Johnson of being “in cahoots” with the DUP and supporting its “blocking tactics”.

Confidence

On Monday morning, former British secretary of state for Northern Ireland Julian Smith said that if reform of the protocol could allow Unionists to feel more confident it “would be better”.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr Smith said concerns raised by Unionists about east-west trade needed to be addressed, adding that he felt there should be more focus on the technical issues that could resolve the dispute over the protocol.

Mr Smith said he and Mr Coveney had fought hard to ensure there was no hard border on the island, adding that the Good Friday Agreement was a huge opportunity for the infrastructures of Northern Ireland.

There was a need to get back to power-sharing, he said, adding there is a “great” relationship between the two islands and a “huge amount” of business and trade.

Some of the recent “rhetoric” had been “deeply depressing”, he said.

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