Northern Ireland Protocol: 'Preposterous' to launch trade war over proposed changes, Boris Johnson says

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Boris Johnson has said it would be “preposterous” for Brussels to launch a trade war over “trivial” planned changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol – as senior EU figures warned of the damage they could cause.

The government is preparing to table legislation to override parts of the deal, which governs Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements despite claims that the move will breach international law – threatening a major row with Europe.

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic both reiterated their opposition to the deal after each speaking to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

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A spokesman for Mr Coveney, who held a 12-minute conversation with Ms Truss on Monday, said it “marks a particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit”.

Mr Sefcovic said in a tweet that unilateral action by the UK was “damaging to mutual trust and a formula for uncertainty”.

But in an interview with LBC, Mr Johnson said: “It’s a bureaucratic change that needs to be made. Frankly it’s a relatively trivial set of adjustments.”

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The PM said it would be a “gross, gross overreaction” and “preposterous” for the European Union to respond by imposing trade restrictions.

The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit.

Northern Ireland remains under some EU rules and there are checks on goods coming from Great Britain, effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea.

Hardline Brexiteers have said this undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and Democratic Unionists have refused to enter power-sharing until the issue is addressed.

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Brandon Lewis: We want to fix problems of Protocol

The prime minister told broadcasters: “We’ve got a problem at the moment, which is… the government of Northern Ireland can’t meet because of the effects of the protocol.

“What it does is it creates unnecessary barriers on trade east-west.

“What we can do is fix that. It’s not a big deal, we can fix it in such a way as to remove those bureaucratic barriers but without putting up barriers on trade moving north-south in the island of Ireland as well.”

Sir Philip Rycroft, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU, told Sky News that Britain’s trading relationship with Europe could be in jeopardy if the government continues with its current approach.

He said: “There is a risk of a full blown trade war with the EU, which would result in the EU withdrawing not just from the protocol but the whole trade and cooperation agreement – and given the state of the UK economy that is the last thing we need.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, speaking to broadcasters on Monday, said the government was “going down the wrong track”.

“The answer to this is to accept there are some problems in the way the protocol works but they could be resolved around the negotiating table – with statecraft, with guile, with trust,” Sir Keir said.

“Unfortunately we don’t have those in the current prime minister.

“They won’t be resolved by legislation that breaches international law and that frankly will impede the negotiations that in the end will be needed to settle this.”

Ms Truss said on Monday after her discussions with Mr Sefcovic to discuss the legislation that the UK still wanted to see a negotiated solution but that “the EU must be willing to change the protocol itself”.

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What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Earlier, Environment Secretary George Eustice rejected the claims of those who say that the protocol is working, suggesting that was only because the deal had still not been implemented in full.

“There are some standstill provisions that we have which means that we’re not actually doing any checks at the moment when it comes to products going from GB to Northern Ireland,” he said.

“There are many other grace periods that are only temporary.

“What we need is some longer term permanent solution and that’s what this bill will set out.”

Asked about concerns raised by the CBI that a battle over the protocol with the EU will hurt the economy, he said: “I work very closely with lots of different businesses.

“The truth is that most of the major retailers – like Marks & Spencer and Tesco and others, who are sending quite complex, composite loads to Northern Ireland – they know that the protocol if implemented in its full way wouldn’t allow their business models to really continue.

“So businesses generally do want us to sort this problem out.”

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What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why does it matter?
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Ms Truss last month laid out the plan for legislation to override parts of the protocol, citing the need to respond to the “very grave and serious situation”.

She said the bill would preserve elements that were working, while fixing those that were not – the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control and governance.

It could allow ministers to remove customs processes for goods moving within the United Kingdom and enable the frictionless movement of agri-food goods staying within the UK.

It could also see businesses in Northern Ireland given the ability to choose whether to follow UK or EU regulations, depending on who they are trading with.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told Sophie that the new bill is “lawful” and “correct” but there is likely to be some opposition from within Tory ranks.

According to the Financial Times, a note has been passed among those against the bill, saying: “Breaking international law to rip up the prime minister’s own treaty is damaging to everything the UK and Conservatives stand for.”