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Boris Johnson picks (another) big Brexit fight – POLITICO

LONDON — Boris Johnson is still ‘getting Brexit done’ — but the EU’s patience is running out.

Britain’s prime minister faces accusations that the country would breach international law if his government uses a recently unveiled bill to unilaterally replace parts of the Northern Ireland protocol that London doesn’t like.

The protocol, introducing health and customs checks on goods transported from Britain to Northern Ireland, was painstakingly agreed with the EU as a crucial part of the Brexit divorce deal.

But Johnson – battered by national drama and much debate over his leadership of the ruling Conservative Party – is advancing proposals that have already raised concerns within the European Commission.

Brussels is expected to give a detailed response as early as Wednesday, but was quick to indicate it was considering dusting off legal action and reminded London that its trading relationship with the bloc hinges on trust.

Johnson’s opponents at home have linked the announcement to his domestic woes, while politicians he hopes to rally in London and Belfast have yet to deliver a final verdict. Washington has urged London – where ministers still hold out hope for a coveted US trade deal – to keep talking to the EU in “good faith”.

“Not much”

Johnson hopes his unilateral action plan – contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill introduced in the House of Commons – will unblock talks with the EU and persuade the European Commission to make concessions beyond that. of those it proposed in October. He hopes to create a window for new ideas before the bill becomes law.

“This is a sensible and practical solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Monday evening. “This will protect the EU’s single market and ensure that there is no physical border on the island of Ireland. We are prepared to achieve this through talks with the EU. But we will not We can only move forward through the negotiations if the EU is willing to change the protocol itself – at the moment that is not the case.”

Johnson himself insisted the proposals were ‘not a big deal’, presenting the plan as a way to remove ‘bureaucratic barriers’ which the UK says are fueling political tensions and causing disputes. trade disruption in Northern Ireland.

Yet in pushing the plan forward, Johnson ignored repeated warnings from officials in Brussels and Dublin, who have signaled for months that they do not expect concessions if the UK goes it alone.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said it was “very unfortunate that a country like the UK is giving up on an international treaty”.

“I think this represents a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries like us, the UK and all of Europe is that we honor the international agreements that we make,” he said during a meeting. a press conference in Cork.

Next steps

The Commission has yet to accept London’s invitation to resume political talks, but confirmed when the bill arrived that it would now consider unblocking infringement proceedings against the UK over the previous protocol disputes.

In what will be seen as a veiled threat to use the bloc’s commercial clout in line with London, Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the EU executive and his Brexit spokesman, pointed out that the Withdrawal Agreement EU-UK “was a pre-condition for the negotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement”, the pact governing post-Brexit trade between the UK and the EU.

“Unilateral action damages mutual trust,” he warned.

Harsh noises also came from Berlin. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters there was “no reason” for the British government’s “very regrettable decision”. And he swore: “The EU will react to this in a unified way, and has its entire toolbox at its disposal.”

For London’s part, ministers are unlikely to introduce changes on the ground before the Bill becomes law, and the journey of legislation through Parliament could be long and arduous, particularly in the House of Lords, where many members oppose the government.

If the bill is signed into law, it will be up to UK ministers to decide if and when they use any of the new powers, and secondary legislation detailing the alternatives will then be needed to make that happen.

Brexit point man Maroš Šefčovič | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Brexiters watch and wait

A once-crucial UK caucus is withholding judgment on the bill for now as it delves into the details.

EU research group of Brexiteer MPs Tory is relaunching its so-called chamber of legal experts, set up to scrutinize initial Brexit deals, and hopes to reach a conclusion within days, the group’s vice-chairman tells POLITICO , David Jones.

‘We won’t support him when it comes to the Commons if we don’t think he’s doing what he’s supposed to – but I highly doubt that’s what will happen,’ he added.

On the face of it, the legislation ticks many boxes for Brexiteer MPs – and crosses several major EU red lines.

He proposes the removal of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) as the final arbiter in the settlement of disputes in Northern Ireland, vowing instead “independent arbitration”, although the British courts can always refer questions on the interpretation of EU law to The role of the CJEU is, according to the EU, fundamental in the protection of the Union’s single market.

Elsewhere, the bill would grant ministers the power to create a frictionless ‘green lane’ for trusted UK traders bringing goods to Northern Ireland that are not destined for the EU single market, coupled with a ‘red lane’ for full checks and customs controls for goods destined for the EU. Details of how the two would work and which assets would fall into each category will be debated alongside the bill’s passage.

It also establishes a new ‘dual regulation’ regime, allowing Northern Irish companies to choose whether they want to follow EU or UK rules, which EU officials have previously said are impossible to implement. .

Provisions on the Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic and human rights would remain unchanged.

Legal danger

Even before the bill was published, the government faced a wave of accusations of violating international law.

Johnson insisted that the “highest and highest priority international obligation” for the UK is the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, which safeguards peace on the island of Ireland. His government denies violating one international treaty to protect another.

In a summary of its legal position on the protocol, the government said it was relying on the “doctrine of necessity”, which it said would “legally justify non-compliance with international obligations” due to the “truly exceptional situation” of Northern Ireland. the region’s power-sharing government remains on ice amid opposition to the protocol from the Democratic Unionist Party.

Boris Johnson picks (another) big Brexit fight – POLITICO
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pictured in 2021 | Photo grouped by Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Early signals from Washington – where many Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, are keenly interested in Ireland – were mixed.

In a call with Truss, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the UK foreign chief “to continue negotiations in good faith with the EU to reach a solution that preserves the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday,” according to a statement from the State Department. .

London could welcome comments from White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, who told reporters on Monday evening that she did not believe the dialogues the UK had recently established with the trade chief American, Katherine Tai, would be hampered by this decision.

But US Congressman Brendan Boyle, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee which oversees US trade policy, went further, warning that the bill “clearly violates international law” and pointing to majority support for the protocol at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ireland spoke loud and clear. The British government must listen to them.”


As if to prove Boyle’s point, a majority of lawmakers from Stormont Assembly in Northern Ireland signed a fiery joint letter to Johnson on Monday declaring their opposition to the “reckless” bill and urging him to focus rather on “engagement with the European Union”.

A consent vote on the protocol due to take place in the Assembly in 2024 would still go ahead under the UK plan, but the government expects regional lawmakers to vote by then on the arrangements in place at that time – whether the UK’s unilateral package or a compromise reached in the meantime with the EU.

The UK government hopes its plan will sway the DUP back to power-sharing. Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the bill but remained evasive in the face of a bumpy passage of the bill through parliament in Westminster. “The release of the bill does not in itself add anything,” he said. “But it’s an important step nonetheless and we recognize that.”

Attention now turns to Brussels for its more detailed response to Johnson’s scheme.

As the UK government awaits the EU’s decision, Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney has warned that the bloc “cannot and will not allow a situation where Ireland will become collateral damage of a policy irresponsible of the British government”.

Hans von der Burchard and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting. This story has been updated to include additional reporting.


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