LONDON: Britain on Wednesday rejected European Union proposals to resolve a standoff over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, saying it would not shy away from taking direct action in a move Ireland said would trigger legal action by Brussels.
Striking a deal that preserved peace in Northern Ireland and protected the EU’s single market without imposing a hard land border between the British province and EU member state Ireland, or a border within the United Kingdom, was always the biggest challenge for London as it embarked on its exit from the bloc.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government agreed to a protocol which instead created a customs border in the sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but it now says the required bureaucracy is intolerable.
The Conservative government has been threatening to rip up the protocol for months, raising the risk of a trade war with Europe at a time of soaring inflation and prompting concern across Europe and in Washington.
Brussels offered to ease customs checks in October but British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said this failed to address the core problem, “and in some cases would take us backward”.
“Prices have risen, trade is being badly disrupted, and the people of Northern Ireland are subject to different laws and taxes than those over the Irish Sea, which has left them without a (governing) executive and poses a threat to peace and stability,” she said in a statement.
Truss said the government wanted a negotiated solution, but added we “will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found”.
On Wednesday, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said the EU would launch legal action and possibly impose countermeasures if London took unilateral action. He added that the news had “gone down really badly” across the EU.
Johnson again said the most important agreement was a deal in 1998 which largely ended decades of sectarian violence between Irish nationalists and unionists – one which is being undermined, London says, by the protocol.