A long-awaited legislative proposal to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland Protocol hit parliament on June 13th, causing a backlash from the European Union as well as stirring up opposition within the UK.
Johnson called the changes proposed by his government merely “bureaucratic,” but the opposition is not convinced that Johnson is not risking violating international law.
The Northern Ireland protocol essentially establishes the trade border between the European Union and the UK at the Irish Sea, stipulating that goods passing into Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK must meet certain EU standards. In turn, there are no controls at the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, keeping the border on the Isle of Ireland open. It was the last detail of Brexit to be negotiated and has continued to be controversial, causing irritation throughout the UK, but particularly in Northern Ireland, where those who identify as British feel that the protocol separates them from the rest of the UK, while those who identify as Irish defend the protocol as protecting their ties to the Republic of Ireland. The protocol was adopted as a means of preserving both the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland and as a way to satisfy the EU.
It has proven a particularly bitter pill for Northern Ireland’s pro-British Unionists to swallow, and the controversy peaked in May when the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland refused to form a regional government until London made substantial changes to the protocol. Nevertheless, the majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties support the protocol and have come out strongly against unilateral changes to it.
Needing to placate both sides, UK prime Minister Boris Johnson has downplayed the significance of his legislative proposal. “All we are trying to do is have some bureaucratic simplifications between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told LBC Radio, Reuters reports.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, said the bill was intended to protect the integrity of the Good Friday peace agreement, and that opponents would see that it did not contravene international law when it was published, The Guardian reported.
The bill contains a fast-track option for goods remaining in Northern Ireland. It also establishes a new “dual regulatory” regime, allowing Northern Irish businesses to choose whether they want to follow EU or British rules.
It sidesteps the European Court of Justice as the sole arbiter of the protocol in favour of “independent arbitration,” although it also stipulates that British courts could still refer questions on the interpretation of EU law to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Many of these are the same flashpoints that had been hashed out during previous negotiations.
The bill could take up to a year to pass and will face opposition, particularly in the House of Lords. Even after it would pass, details of each measure would have to be defined.
This provides plenty of time for the UK and EU to come to an agreement on the protocol, though relations over the issues remain frosty.
In a statement issued late Monday night, EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, who was also the chief Brexit negotiator, issued a scathing statement:
Renegotiating the protocol is unrealistic. No workable alternative solution has been found to this delicate, long-negotiated balance. Any renegotiation would simply bring further legal uncertainty for people and businesses in Northern Ireland. For these reasons, the European Union will not renegotiate the protocol.
He did, though, pledge maximum flexibility within the protocol on the part of the EU, and committed to presenting such a plan for implementing the protocol.
His statement also contained a threat to the UK, warning that the EU was considering reopening the infringement procedure it had launched in March, 2021.
Within the UK, the opposition is still sceptical and demanding that Johnson and his ministers release the full record of legal advice it received on the bill.
The Guardian also reported that Peter Kyle, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said the bill had “potential for malicious and rogue governments to interpret it as a green light for unilateral action against international treaties to which they are bound.”
“Given this, it is incumbent on ministers to release the maximum possible legal advice from the start, so the legal basis upon which they make their case to parliament can be judged,” he added.
In a letter protesting changes to the protocol, 52 members of Northern Ireland’s General Assembly from Sinn Fein, Alliance, and the Social Democrat and Labour Party—parties which collectively represent a majority inside the Northern Ireland Assembly and garnered the majority of votes cast in the recent Assembly election—rejected “in the strongest possible terms your government’s reckless new protocol legislation.”
They further stated that the legislation does not represent the will of most people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
The legislation comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely squeaked through a no-confidence vote, and with the UK hit hard by inflation and economic stagnation.