Boris Johnson today warned the EU of retaliation following the publication today of bills repealing Brexit provisions in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister played down the importance of the Protocol Amendment Bill, which was introduced in Parliament this afternoon, saying the changes were “relatively minor”.
They should include the unilateral establishment of a ‘green route’ without checks for goods bound for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
He claimed that following through on threats of trade retaliation would be an “overreaction” from Brussels.
However, Labor accused the government of breaking the law, and there were signs of opposition within the Conservative Party, with some MPs handing out a note saying the proposal would be hugely damaging to the party’s reputation.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has told the DUP the legislation will not be activated unless he agrees to restore power sharing.
“It’s the right way to go,” Mr Johnson told LBC. What we must respect – and this is essential – is the balance and symmetry of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
“We have to recognize that in Northern Ireland there are two traditions, or at least two ways of approaching border issues.” A community is currently quite dissatisfied with the way things are going and feels very alienated.
“All we have to do now is fix it.” It’s quite simple to execute, but it requires a bureaucratic change.
“Overall, this is a rather minor set of changes.”
Mr Johnson refuted accusations that the action violates international law, saying ‘our overriding and prior legal commitment as a country is the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the balance and stability of This agreement”.
A trade war, according to Mr Johnson, would be a “gross overreaction” from Brussels.
“All we’re trying to do is make it simple,” he added, referring to the removal of economic barriers between the UK and Northern Ireland.
It would be ‘absurd’ to retaliate with trade restrictions ‘when all we are trying to do is simplify the bureaucracy between the UK and Northern Ireland’.
In a phone call this morning, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney warned Liz Truss that drafting a bill to unilaterally change the Northern Ireland protocol would be a breach of international law and would seriously damage relationships.
“Our preference is a negotiated solution, but the EU must be willing to change the protocol itself,” Ms Truss said after a call with bloc vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
The law will give ministers the power to override parts of the protocol, which was agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to keep Ireland’s land border open.
Instead, regulatory checks and customs declarations on products moving between the UK and Northern Ireland are required under the agreements.
Northern Ireland trade unionists have criticized the international deal, saying it weakens the region’s standing within the UK.
After last month’s general election, the DUP protested by blocking the creation of a new power-sharing government in Stormont.
The government will seek to change the provisions of the convention without EU agreement to reduce inspections on the flow of goods across the Irish Sea, according to the bill currently before parliament.
This could notably allow ministers to eliminate all customs procedures for goods traveling to the UK, allowing frictionless movement of agri-food products within the country.
Northern Ireland businesses may also be offered the option of following UK or EU regulations, depending on who they are trading with.
Such actions would constitute a violation of international law, according to the EU, and could lead to retaliation by the bloc.
“Breaking international law to withdraw the Prime Minister’s own treaty is damaging to everything the UK and the Tories stand for,” according to an internal memo sent to Tory MPs opposed to the bill, according to the Financial Times.
Mr Lewis expressed optimism that the bill will encourage the DUP to support the restoration of Stormont institutions.
He also said that when the bill is presented to parliament on Monday, the government will indicate its legal position on the bill.
“What we are going to do is legal and correct,” Mr Lewis told Sky News on Sunday.
“We will state our legal position on this.” People will recognize that what we are proposing corrects the main flaws of the protocol.
“It appears the government intends to contravene international law,” said Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves.
“This government seems to be creating a record of breaking the law, and it’s not one that Labor can maintain,” she said.
While Mr Lewis said the government’s ‘legal position’ on the matter would be made public, he also said ‘governments do not reveal details of advice given to ministers’.
Downing Street has said it will only publish a “summary” of the legal advice it has obtained from the public, prompting allegations of a “cover-up”.
“The bill has been approved by the relevant ministerial committees and will be presented to Parliament on Monday,” a No 10 spokesman said on Friday.
“We will publish a summary of legal advice alongside the bill.”
Peter Kyle, Labour’s shadow secretary for Northern Ireland, said it was “a responsibility of ministers” to publish as many legal opinions as possible, with “transparency about its origins”.
Alistair Carmichael, spokesman for the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats, said the public deserved “full clarity” on the legal basis of the plan, adding that he anticipated a “cover-up”.
“Well, governments don’t publish the details of the advice given to ministers, that’s part of…we need to have this free and open discussion while they’re formulating policy,” Mr Lewis said on Times Radio when told asked him why Downing Street was only publishing a summary of the legal opinion and not disclosing it in full.
“However, we will set out the government’s legal position as well as our process for doing so.”