Following “tetchy” talks on Thursday with EU chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic, UK foreign secretary Liz Truss has called on the bloc to show greater flexibility over post-Brexit goods checks going into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Truss was warned that if the EU does not relent, then Westminster will “have no choice but to act” after new legal advice given to the government suggested that it would be lawful for ministers to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Protocol is a major bone of contention in Northern Ireland following Brexit. It was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland but effectively creates a trade border in the Irish Sea in its place by requiring checks to be carried out on goods travelling into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
While the Protocol is a mechanism for preserving the peace in Northern Ireland, unionists argue it undermines its place in the UK.
Negotiations between the UK and the EU over how the Protocol is practically implemented are ongoing, but if a solution cannot be found then the UK is considering taking unilateral action to override the Protocol.
Although no final decisions over such action have been taken by Westminster, the EU has warned that it could respond by inflicting trade sanctions upon the UK.
Tension within the negotiations has been exacerbated by the outcome of the Northern Irish assembly election last week, which saw nationalist party Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party at Stormont for the first time.
Due to power-sharing arrangements in place in the country following the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin needs the unionist DUP to enter government with it. However, the DUP is refusing to nominate ministers to allow the local government to function until its concerns around the Protocol are resolved.
In Thursday’s discussions, Truss emphasised that the “overriding” priority of the UK was to preserve peace and stability in the region, but the Protocol was now standing in the way of Northern Ireland having a functioning executive.
It is this development, according to UK attorney general Suella Braverman’s office, that would make the UK's option of overriding the Protocol lawful, on the grounds that it is contributing social unrest in Northern Ireland.
The UK also claimed following Thursday’s talks that Sefcovic did not leave “room to expand the EU negotiating mandate or introduce new proposals to reduce the overall level of trade friction” and urged the bloc to reconsider its stance.
In response, Sefcovic expressed “serious concern” over the UK’s willingness to “embark on the path of unilateral action” in the absence of a mutual solution.
Sefcovic warned that such a move would “undermine the conditions which are essential for Northern Ireland to continue to have access to the EU single market for goods”, claiming that Brussels had put forward enough different and wide-ranging solutions that could “substantially improve” the implementation of the Protocol.
Back in October, the EU put forward proposals for changes which would have seen checks on food products reduced, but these were dismissed by the UK.
The UK has argued that the changes suggested by the EU would in reality increase the prevalence of customs checks and controls and lead to “everyday items disappearing from the shelves” in Northern Ireland.
The negotiations continue.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons