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The EU today batted away pleas to overhaul the Northern Ireland protocol saying the bloc cannot ‘solve all the problems created by Brexit’.
Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic insisted there is no prospect of the bloc changing his negotiating mandate to resolve the deadlock.
In a speech to MEPs, he said: ‘We will not renegotiate the protocol. The EU is united in this position.’
But, after talks with Mr Sefcovic failed to secure a breakthrough, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned that the EU is leaving the UK with ‘no choice’ about acting unilaterally to axe the post-Brexit rules.
The standoff came after Attorney General Suella Braverman concluded that it would be legal to axe swathes of the post-Brexit rules for the province because they are causing social unrest.
There have been claims that Boris Johnson is preparing to trigger the move within days, despite warnings from the US and Europe.
According to the Foreign Office, Ms Truss told Mr Sefcovic the protocol was ‘the greatest obstacle’ to forming a new Northern Ireland executive.
The spokesman said: ‘The Foreign Secretary noted this with regret and said the situation in Northern Ireland is a matter of internal peace and security for the United Kingdom, and if the EU would not show the requisite flexibility to help solve those issues, then as a responsible government we would have no choice but to act.’
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (right) is speaking to commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic (left) as the standoff escalates in the wake of Stormont elections
Attorney General Suella Braverman is said to have concluded that it would be legal to axe swathes of the post-Brexit rules for the province because they are causing social unrest
Sectarian tensions have been rising in Northern Ireland, while Sinn Fein became the biggest party for the first time in elections last week
The PM has insisted that the Good Friday Agreement is more important than the Northern Ireland Protocol, dismissing suggestions of any possible escalatory response from the EU as ‘crazy’.
But today he took a more emolient stance, merely saying there is a ‘real problem’ that must be ‘fixed’.
‘Look, Northern Ireland is an incredible place, it’s got a fantastic future,’ he said on a visit to Stoke.
‘At the moment, very sadly, the institutions of democracy, the political governance of Northern Ireland, has collapsed.
‘The institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement aren’t functioning. The executive, the assembly – they can’t form.
‘That’s a bad thing at any time, that’s a bad thing now when the people of Northern Ireland need leadership, they need a regional, a provincial government that will focus on the cost of living, on healthcare, on transport, on things that matter in their everyday lives.
‘They haven’t got that. That’s a real, real problem. And the reason they don’t have that is because there’s one community in Northern Ireland that won’t accept the way the protocol works at present – we’ve got to fix that.’
Ms Truss has warned she will ‘not shy away’ from taking action, accusing the EU of proposing solutions that would ‘take us backwards’.
According to a government readout of the conversation, Ms Truss told Mr Sefcovic the EU ‘bore a responsibility to show more pragmatism and ensure the protocol delivered on its original objectives’.
‘The Foreign Secretary reiterated that the UK’s proposals to fix the protocol, including green and red channel arrangements, backed up by a bespoke data-sharing system, would ensure the removal of trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland while protecting the EU single market,’ she said.
‘The Foreign Secretary outlined why EU proposals would take us backwards, by creating more checks and paperwork.
‘Vice President Šefčovič confirmed that there was no room to expand the EU negotiating mandate or introduce new proposals to reduce the overall level of trade friction.’
But Mr Sefcovic said in a statement following the call ‘simply not acceptable’ for the UK to axe the protocol.
‘It continues to be of serious concern that the UK Government intends to embark on the path of unilateral action,’ he said.
‘I am convinced that only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action, effectively disapplying an international agreement such as the protocol, is simply not acceptable.
‘This would undermine trust between the EU and UK as well as compromise our ultimate objective – to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, while ensuring legal certainty and predictability for the people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
‘Such unilateral action will also undermine the conditions which are essential for Northern Ireland to continue to have access to the EU single market for goods.’
Ms Braverman has reportedly advised that legislation to override the protocol would be legally sound because of the ‘disproportionate and unreasonable’ way it has been implemented by the EU.
She has submitted evidence accusing the EU of undermining the Good Friday Agreement by creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea, and warned of ‘societal unrest’ in Northern Ireland.
However, there are signs of tensions in the Cabinet over the step, with Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak said to be concerned about the impact on the economy amid the Ukraine war and cost-of-living crisis.
Mr Gove stressed yesterday he was ‘super-cool’ with the approach being taken by Ms Truss.
Mr Johnson played down the risks yesterday, telling BBC News: ‘Let’s face it, we’re talking about really, in the scheme of things, a very, very small part of the whole European economy, and I think 0.4 per cent of the value of the whole of the EU economy in Northern Ireland.
‘It is crazy. I didn’t think there’s any need for drama. This is something that just needs to be fixed.’
Speaking to ITV’s Peston programme, Jacob Rees-Mogg said the UK would not involve itself in any trade war with the EU.
‘Tit-for-tat retaliation of that kind is the economics of the schoolground and it would damage British consumers at a time of rising (prices),’ he said.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said this morning that Brussels wanted ‘compromise’.
But he warned: ‘Clearly, if the UK breaches international law, if it undermines a protocol that is about protecting the integrity of the EU single market, then the EU can’t ignore that.’
He told RTE radio that there was still a ‘landing zone’ for an agreement between the two sides.
‘We’re not going to do it under the threat of British Government’s language and briefing of the media which says if the EU doesn’t give us everything we want, well, then we’re going to legislate ourselves to override international law,’ he said.
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns last night that the UK Government would have to take unilateral action over the protocol if it could not resolve issues with the EU.
Speaking to LBC’s Tonight With Andrew Marr programme, he said: ‘If the EU are saying to us that, and they’re not, I don’t think, yet at the position of saying there’s nothing more to talk about, then we will have to take actions to prioritise stability in Northern Ireland, powersharing in Northern Ireland, to protect the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, and that will mean intervention unilaterally, yes.’
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said: ‘No-one should unilaterally cancel, break or in any way attack the settlement.’
The White House stressed the need for talks to continue to resolve the issues, with a spokesman saying: ‘The best path forward is a pragmatic one that requires courage, co-operation and leadership.
‘We urge the parties to continue engaging in dialogue to resolve differences and bring negotiations to a successful conclusion.’
Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his call for the Government to take action.
Boris Johnson (pictured in Sweden yesterday) insisted that the Good Friday Agreement is more important than the Northern Ireland Protocol, as he dismissed suggestions of any possible escalatory response from the EU as ‘crazy’
He told Sky News: ‘The protocol is harming Northern Ireland, it’s harming our economy, it is undermining political stability here, so I think in those circumstances, and in order to safeguard the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement and political institutions, the UK Government is well within its rights to act in these circumstances.’
Officials working for Ms Truss are drawing up draft legislation to unilaterally remove the need for checks on all goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland.
Ms Truss is understood to be poised to take further action in coming weeks if negotiations with the EU continue to stall.
The proposed law would allow businesses in Northern Ireland to disregard EU rules and regulations and remove the power of the European Court of Justice to rule on issues relating to the region.
Crucially, it would in parts override the protocol agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019 and mean the UK had breached its obligations under the Brexit agreement.
But it has been argued that the protocol will not be completely overridden, with measures being considered to ease the issues on the ground in Northern Ireland.