Boris Johnson’s government will press ahead on Monday with legislation to unilaterally rip up Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements in spite of fierce criticism from Brussels.
MPs will have their first vote on the legislation, which gives powers to the government to deactivate parts of the prime minister’s Brexit deal with the EU, including a requirement for checks on all goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile Johnson hinted on Sunday that the UK may extend tariffs on imported steel that experts have said could put Britain at risk of breaching World Trade Organization rules.
Johnson’s decision to proceed with the Northern Ireland protocol bill follows warnings from the European Commission that unilaterally rewriting the Brexit agreement risks igniting a trade war with the EU.
João Vale de Almeida, the EU ambassador to the UK, called the legislation “illegal and unrealistic” on Sunday.
However the UK government claims the Northern Ireland protocol is undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict.
Pro-British unionist parties claim the protocol is undermining their region’s status within the UK, and last year it was blamed for a brief resurgence of violence.
Liz Truss, foreign secretary, said the protocol bill “will fix the problems the protocol has created, ensuring that goods can flow freely within the UK, while avoiding a hard border and safeguarding the EU single market”.
She added that the UK government still preferred a “negotiated solution” with the EU on the protocol, but had been obliged to act unilaterally because the bloc was refusing to reopen the text of Johnson’s Brexit deal.
The government says only fundamental reform of the protocol will make it acceptable to Northern Ireland’s pro-UK Democratic Unionist party, which is demanding an end to checks on goods that stay in the region after arriving from Britain. The DUP is boycotting the Northern Ireland assembly and executive until its demands are met.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the protocol bill’s second reading in the House of Commons was “welcome and sensible. It is important that this bill now progresses rapidly . . . before the summer recess”.
No substantive talks on the protocol between London and Brussels have taken place since February and Vale de Almeida conceded that the two sides were now at a “stalemate”.
The EU has said that it will only negotiate within the terms of the existing protocol, focusing on technical measures to reduce the impact of bureaucratic checks required on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
“We are committed to finding practical solutions on implementation but we cannot start talking if the baseline is to say that everything we have agreed before is to be put aside,” Vale de Almeida said in an interview with Sky News.
The British government wants a root and branch rewrite of sections of the protocol including ending checks on goods destined only for sale in Northern Ireland, and removing the jurisdiction of the EU’s top court.
“International agreements change all the time when circumstances change,” said one Truss ally. “We’re baffled and frustrated as to why the EU says the protocol itself cannot change when it’s obvious it’s causing huge and unsustainable problems.”
This month the EU restarted legal proceedings against the British government, warning the bloc would use “all measures at its disposal” if the UK government proceeds with the Northern Ireland protocol bill.
The government expects to win the vote in the Commons despite some Conservative MPs having misgivings about the legality of the legislation because of its overriding of an international treaty.
However the bill is expected to face stiff opposition in the House of Lords. One senior Tory predicted that it would get a “rough ride” and be “ripped to shreds”.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph reported the government is preparing to renew existing tariffs on steel made overseas, including in China, which were due to expire this week.
Trade experts have previously said the tariffs could be vulnerable to a challenge at the WTO, and Lord Christopher Geidt, Johnson’s former ethics adviser, also raised concerns.
Johnson said at the G7 summit in Bavaria it was reasonable for UK-made steel to enjoy the “same protections” as that from other European economies, while acknowledging a risk of breaching WTO rules with the tariffs.
“But these are tough choices that you have to make,” added the prime minister. Johnson’s spokesman said no final decision had been taken by the government.