The UK will send a senior Northern Ireland official to Washington in a bid to strengthen relations with US President Joe Biden’s administration ahead of a legal battle with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The civil servant from the UK government’s Northern Ireland office has been tasked with engaging with the administration and the US Congress, and will be based at the UK’s embassy in Washington, the Daily Telegraph reported.
The appointment follows concerns in Boris Johnson’s team that President Biden, who has Irish ancestry, is too sympathetic towards the EU on the controversial issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The European Commission has confirmed that it plans to take legal action after Johnson’s government moved to unilaterally extend grace periods for Irish Sea border checks. The UK claims that the move was needed to continue deliveries to supermarkets and their suppliers, and has complained that the border checks will cause unnecessary disruption in Northern Ireland.
Under the Protocol, which remains deeply unpopular with the Unionist community and Johnson’s Conservative party, Ulster remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.
Earlier this week, Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic briefed EU ambassadors that he plans to launch two parallel proceedings against the UK. The first, an infringement procedure, could eventually end up in the European Court of Justice.
The second would be made under the Withdrawal Agreement which took the UK out of the bloc last January, and would attempt to resolve the dispute in the Joint Committee of UK and EU officials that monitors its implementation.
The two procedures, which have the support of the EU27, are expected to be finalised within days.
Johnson’s EU relations minister, David Frost, maintains that extending the grace periods is only a technical “operational measure” and does not breach the trade agreement with the EU or the Protocol.
President Biden said last September, prior to his election, that the Good Friday Agreement could not be allowed to be “a casualty of Brexit”.
He also retweeted a letter to Johnson from members of the House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee warning that Congress would not pass a trade deal with the UK – one which Johnson’s government prizes above all others – if Britain fails to uphold its commitments to Northern Ireland.
Last week, the US president was also mooted as a possible mediator between the EU and UK on the issue.
Commissioner Sefcovic and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney briefed the US Congress’ Irish-American caucus on Wednesday. The group is chaired by Democrat Richard Neal, who is also the chairman of the Congressional trade committee.
On Thursday, Coveney told Irish media that without a solution being agreed via dialogue between the EU and UK, the EU executive “really has no option but to take legal action, which will begin this week.”
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]