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Exasperation over UK actions but Irish officials don't expect Brussels to be 'bounced' into Protocol response

The UK is seeking to unilaterally change the Withdrawal Agreement.

LAST UPDATE | 18 May 2022


IRISH OFFICIALS ARE not expecting the European Commission to be “bounced” into a response to UK plans to dispose with some aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The response from Brussels to yesterday’s speech by British Foreign Secretary has been best described as a “wait and see approach” despite exasperation at the UK’s decision. 

Speaking yesterday in the House of Commons, Secretary Liz Truss said that the Conservative government plans to “introduce legislation to make changes to the Protocol.”

The move by the UK to unilaterally change an international treaty, the Withdrawal Agreement, has caused dismay across the EU.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said today it caused particular “puzzlement” across European capitals at a time when the UK was seeking to defend international norms in the case of Ukraine. 

Speaking yesterday, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic criticised Truss’ plan and left open the option that Brussels could retaliate.

Should the UK proceed with the Bill, the EU will respond with “all measures at its disposal”, he said.

Despite this, Irish officials working on this country’s response to Brexit have reiterated that what they are expecting is a “calm and measured approach” from the European Commission in the coming weeks. 

Instead, it is hoped that both sides could return to more talks but some officials have cited concerns in Brussels that UK priorities “have changed”. 

At tonight’s parliamentary party meeting, An Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told colleagues Brexit is not a passing storm.

The Fine Gael leader said Brexit is more like political climate change and a permanent change in relations between Ireland and the UK and also between the EU and the UK. It will go on forever and will never just be “done”.

He said Ireland had been threatened before by the UK but Ireland and Europe faced down these threats.

Varadkar said we are dealing with a London Government that we are struggling to trust as evidenced by what has happened since the Withdrawal Agreement was made.

The Tánaiste advised colleagues that efforts would be redoubled to get to a landing zone on the protocol but that it needed to be a stable one.

Truss has said she wants the EU to “come to the negotiating table” so a “pragmatic solution” can be agreed together.

“But if that doesn’t happen we do need to move ahead delivering this solution for the people of Northern Ireland,” she said.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and UK following Brexit and was designed as a way preventing the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The Protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market for goods but also keeps Northern Ireland in the UK’s Customs territory.

While the unique arrangement offers potential advantages for NI businesses to operate in both territories, unionists have criticised it because it has required some checks to be carried out on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Some of the particular criticism has been made in terms of food items, with suggestions from unionist politicians that food going to supermarkets in Northern Ireland should be free of all checks. 

The UK has not yet published the detail of the legislation to alter the Protocol but it is understood that the government is planning unilateral action to introduce separate “green” and “red” lanes for goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The different lanes would draw a distinction between goods destined to stay within the UK and those heading to the Republic of Ireland and beyond.

There will be no crossover between the channels, it is understood, with goods filtering through one or the other, depending on their intended destination.

Asked about such a system this morning, Varadkar said that it made be “a possibility” but he added that there are also “risks” to that proposal.

“On the up side, it would allow more products going to Northern Ireland from Britain without any checks and I think that would help resolve some of the objections from the unionist community, but there is a risk, of course, of products going south. That’s something we’d have to bear in mind,” he said. 

Referencing chlorinated chicken from Thailand or beef from Brazil being imported to the UK, Varadkar continued: “Is this something that the Ulster Farmers’ Union actually wants, is this something that the DUP actually wants, could this be a repeat of the Brexit moment where people in Northern Ireland who wanted Brexit maybe didn’t understand what the consequences were.”

Good Friday Agreement 

Truss has sought to defend the UK’s planned unilateral action in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, something which has angered the Irish side in particular

Truss has claimed that “the situation is very severe” and that she would table the legislation within weeks. 

“The Executive hasn’t been formed since February. And we’re only going to be able to get it back up and running, to get the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement working again, by delivering this solution,” she told Times Radio today. 

It was revealed last week that a delegation of influential US congress representatives is set to fly to Europe amid growing concern in the White House about spiralling tensions over the Protocol. 

It is expected that the delegation will travel to Northern Ireland to get a sense of the issues on the ground as well as travelling to Brussels to reaffirm US support for the Protocol. 

- With reporting by Press Association 

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