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EU warns it won’t budge as UK mulls action against Northern Ireland deal

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LONDON — Northern Ireland’s trade rules are back in the spotlight and Britain hasn’t given up on changing them.

For weeks the U.K. has been readying a plan to tear up the so-called protocol that governs Northern Irish trade since Brexit. After disagreements among Boris Johnson’s top team over whether or not to deploy such a move, a U.K. official said Tuesday’s queen’s speech, in which the government will outline its upcoming legislative plans, will instead contain a veiled threat to Brussels.

The threat, worded as a pledge to protect the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the region in the 1990s, leaves the door open to using U.K. legislation at a later stage to dis-apply parts of the protocol and replace them with a British approach, if the talks with the EU do not yield a compromise London finds acceptable.

Although Brussels has agreed to smooth the operation of the protocol, which was negotiated as part of the U.K.’s exit from the European Union and keeps Northern Ireland in the single market for goods, unionists in the region want to scrap it arguing the arrangement cuts off Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. by introducing checks on some goods traded across the Irish Sea. 

Face-to-face discussions are set to resume Thursday, when U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to host European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič at her Chevening official residence.

Unilateral action to address the issues with the protocol “is on the table as one of the options,” U.K. Universities Minister Michelle Donelan told broadcasters Monday.

U.K. Attorney General Suella Braverman is understood to have sought external legal advice on options to break the deadlock in the talks, and U.K. officials believe a plan to legislate against the protocol would need to be justified on the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement for it to avoid a challenge in the courts.

The plan, however, does not appear to have the full backing of the British government. A person familiar with the discussions said U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has concerns about the impact unilateral action would have on Britain’s relationship with the EU and the possibility of trade retaliation, and Housing Secretary Michael Gove would rather allow the talks with the EU to continue for a bit longer.

The Cabinet Office has stressed to foreign envoys that no decision has been made while some at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office would rather let other departments take the lead on the drafting of any bill with that purpose, one diplomat from an EU country said.

The Commission must be more generous because its proposals, announced in October, would create more trade friction across the Irish Sea than the levels experienced by businesses at the moment, said Olaf Henricson-Bell, a director at the Cabinet Office, adding: “No one argues that there shouldn’t be a protocol.”

‘Established mechanism’

If the threat materializes, the Commission is expected to remind Britain of its obligation to stick to the international commitments it signed up to when it enacted the Brexit divorce deal, and could refloat the list of retaliatory measures agreed by EU countries last fall in case the U.K. ripped apart the protocol.

Šefčovič told POLITICO Brussels Playbook on Sunday evening that the U.K. government must “dial down the rhetoric, be honest about the deal they signed and agree to find solutions within its framework.”

The view in Brussels is that using domestic British legislation to change the rules without triggering Article 16 — a mechanism written into the protocol that allows both sides to unilaterally suspend it — would be more damaging for the relationship than using this safeguard mechanism, three London-based diplomats said. “There’s an established mechanism with rules and timetables — that’s in the deal,” one of envoys said.

Others said the EU is wary of being dragged into any Tory infighting or what they suspect is an attempt by Johnson to save his premiership and win the next U.K. general election by blaming Brussels for the consequences of Brexit.

Europe has moved on from Brexit and does not want to be dragged into another fight with Britain, Bruno van der Pluijm, the Belgian ambassador to the U.K. said, adding: “The Commission has a mandate to deal with it. Nobody is going to waste political capital on this anymore at the altar and this is not a political issue anymore.”

The protocol is the solution to the issue of Northern Ireland and not the problem, a Brussels-based EU diplomat added. “This is an international agreement, and any work to implement it properly needs to be undertaken by both sides.”

Northern Ireland fallout

Back in Belfast, leaders are grappling with a historic election result which saw the nationalist Sinn Féin become the largest party for the first time in its history.

U.K. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis on Monday met with the leaders of the main five parties in Northern Ireland in an attempt to restore a power-sharing executive in the region. The protocol has split the region’s politics down sectarian lines, with nationalists happy to see minimal disruption to trade between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and unionists angered by what they see as a mechanism that has cut them off from the wider U.K. economy.

“We will continue to press the EU to agree the crucial changes that are urgently needed but will take nothing off the table in our pursuit of those solutions,” Lewis said after the meetings, echoing the threat officials expect to hear in Tuesday’s queen’s speech.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party had four of the 10 posts in the previous coalition government, said he told Lewis that the DUP would not nominate any new ministers until there is progress on the protocol. This means an assembly vote to fill the top two power-sharing posts — to be elected on a joint ticket by both sides of the assembly — cannot proceed later this week.

The results from Thursday’s assembly election mean Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill should become first minister while the nominee from the second-place DUP would become deputy first minister, the position previously held by O’Neill.

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