Johnson threatens to override Irish protocol ahead of EU-UK trade talks

No hard border placard, Brexit. [EPA-EFE/AIDAN CRAWLEY]

Turning up the pressure on the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is threatening to table new legislation and override requirements for new Northern Ireland customs arrangements, intended to prevent the return of checks at the Irish border from next year.

The Irish Protocol was a crucial but controversial part of the Withdrawal Agreement, which took the UK out of the EU in January. The new legislation, called the Internal Market Bill, has not been published but is understood to override the legal force of the Withdrawal Agreement in areas including state aid and Northern Ireland customs.

In May, the UK government published plans to implement the Protocol, including new customs checks on the island of Ireland, and for Northern Ireland to follow EU rules on agri-food and industrial products, and continuing to enforce the EU’s customs code at its ports.

UK government officials explained on Monday (7 September) that the Internal Market Bill was a standby plan in case trade talks with the EU’s negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier, fail. The eighth round of negotiations is due to begin on Tuesday.

With the talks between Barnier’s team and that of UK counterpart David Frost at an impasse over state aid rules and fisheries, the UK has sought to ramp up the pressure on the EU over the last 48 hours.

In a statement on Monday, Johnson gave an EU summit on 15 October as the deadline for an EU-UK trade deal to be agreed in order to be ratified before the UK’s transitional period expires at the end of 2020.

“There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point.  If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on,” the UK prime minister said.

Johnson added that the UK leaving the EU’s single market and trading with the bloc on World Trade Organisation terms, which would see the reintroduction on tariffs on a range of products, “would be a good outcome for the UK”.

Although the EU made avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland a key priority in its Brexit negotiating strategy, threatening to tear up the Irish Protocol is a risky move domestically for Johnson.

It is particularly tricky in Northern Ireland, where Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that unpicking parts of the Protocol would be a “treacherous betrayal which would inflict irreversible harm on the all-Ireland economy and the Good Friday Agreement”.

Meanwhile, the UK on Monday also launched a “Keep Business Moving” campaign aimed at providing information for EU traders on what they need to do to continue trading smoothly with the UK at the end of the year.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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