UK set to rewrite Brexit rules; EU threatens legal action


By SYLVIA HUI and DANICA KIRKA, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — The British government on Monday proposed new legislation that would unilaterally rewrite post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, despite opposition from some British lawmakers and EU officials who say the move violates international law.

The proposed bill aims to remove customs checks on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. It will override parts of the trade treaty Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with the European Union less than two years ago.

The UK government has argued its decision was justified under international law because of the “truly exceptional situation”, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused the EU of blocking a negotiated settlement. The European Commission has said it may take legal action against the UK.

Existing trade rules “give Northern Ireland traders access to the EU’s single market for goods. The UK government’s approach puts that access – and the opportunities associated with it – at risk”, said European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

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In Ireland, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said it was “very unfortunate that a country like the UK is giving up on an international treaty”. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz echoed that sentiment, saying there was “no reason” for the UK to make such a move. .

“It’s a rejection of all the deals we’ve made between the European Union and Britain,” Scholz said. “The European Union will react as one and it has the whole toolbox at its disposal.”

Dismissing criticism, Johnson told reporters that the proposed change is “relatively simple to make”.

“Frankly, it’s a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things,” he told LBC Radio.

He argued that his government’s ‘higher and prior legal commitment’ was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland.

Arrangements for Northern Ireland – the only part of the UK that shares a land border with an EU country – have proven the thorniest issue in Britain’s divorce from the bloc, which is which became final at the end of 2020. At the center of the dispute is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which now regulates trade relations between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU.

Britain and the EU agreed in their Brexit deal that Ireland’s land border would be free of customs posts and other checks, as an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, to protect the EU’s single market, checks are carried out on certain goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

But the arrangement has proven politically damaging for Johnson because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. The Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party has refused to return to the region’s power-sharing government until the protocol is scrapped or substantially amended.

The bill to overturn the arrangement is expected to face opposition in parliament, including from members of Johnson’s own Tory ranks. Critics say changing the protocol unilaterally would be illegal and hurt Britain’s standing with other countries, as it is part of a treaty considered binding under international law.

In Brussels, Sefcovic said the protocol was “the one and only solution we can find together to protect the hard-won gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland”.

He added that the EU remained open to discussions with the British government to find a solution to the dispute.

Associated Press writers Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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