By SYLVIA HUI and DANICA KIRKA – Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — The British government on Monday proposed new legislation that would unilaterally change post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, despite opposition from some UK 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 maintains it is acting within the framework of international law, but the European Commission has said it may take legal action against the UK.
European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said the EU executive would consider launching new infringement proceedings to “protect the EU’s single market from the risks that breaching the protocol creates for EU businesses and for the health and safety of EU citizens”.
In Ireland, Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said the bill “marks a particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit”. Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said it was “very unfortunate that a country like the UK is walking away from an international treaty”.
Dismissing criticism, Johnson told reporters the proposed change was “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 regulates trade relations between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU after Brexit.
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 proved politically damaging for Johnson because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, potentially weakening the province’s historic ties to Britain. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland has refused to return to the region’s power-sharing government until the protocol is removed or substantially modified to address these concerns.
The bill to overturn the arrangement is expected to face opposition in parliament, including from members of Johnson’s Tories. Critics say unilaterally modify the protocol would be illegal and hurt Britain’s standing with other countries because it is part of a treaty considered binding under international law.
In Brussels, Sefcovic said the protocol was “the one and only solution we could find together to protect the hard-won gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland”. He added that the EU will not renegotiate the protocol.
Associated Press reporter Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s Brexit coverage on https://apnews.com/hub/brexit.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.