Monday, June 27, 2022

Liz Truss’ legislation could give ministers sweeping powers to tear up NI’s Brexit deal indefinitely

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The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill gives ministers the power to go beyond stated plans and tear up large aspects of the Brexit deal agreed by Boris Johnson less than three years ago.

Boris Johnson insisted long-awaited legislation to suspend large parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he agreed with the EU less than three years ago, was “no big deal”.

UK ministers will hand themselves wide-ranging powers that could allow them to indefinitely suspend large parts of the Northern Ireland Brexit deal under controversial legislation published on Monday.

The prime minister is also facing accusations, including from the EU and Conservative MPs, that the plans would breach international law and mark a “low point” in relations with Brussels, which is preparing to launch legal action this week Britain could face hefty fines.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss published her Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on Monday, saying the law was a “reasonable, practical solution” to an “unsustainable” situation in Northern Ireland.

The legislation aims to pave the way for a drastic reduction in trade controls between Britain and Northern Ireland, which has been fiercely opposed by unionists in Northern Ireland who argue the protocol undermines the provincial place in the UK.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has collapsed Stormont’s institutions and will not re-enter power-sharing until the accord is amended.

However, critics in Northern Ireland have described the powers that be as “reckless”. A majority of non-union members in Stormont’s assembly signed a joint letter to Mr Johnson rejecting “in the strongest terms” the “reckless new protocol legislation” that goes against the expressed wishes of not only most companies but most people in Northern Ireland”.

The UK prefers to negotiate a solution with the EU, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman insisted sweeping national powers would be needed as “insurance policy”.

A Government source said so-called “clause 15 powers” were needed to allow ministers to go beyond the plans outlined by Ms Truss on Monday or the UK would be “fully bound by the law” and would have to do so Change again to make “further adjustments” to the protocol at a technical level if necessary.

“For example, medicines could never be switched to UK-only regulation without primary legislation, even if the situation in the future required it,” they said.

Attorney General Suella Braverman will release a statement insisting the plans are legal because they are necessary to protect peace in Northern Ireland, given the strain the protocol is putting on socio-political conditions in the province.

Ms Truss, who has been accused of trying to back Tory pro-Brexit advocates with the legislation, said: “We can only make progress through negotiations if the EU is willing to change the protocol itself – at the moment they are it not.

“Meanwhile, the serious situation in Northern Ireland means we cannot afford to sidetrack the situation.

“As the government of the whole UK, it is our duty to take the necessary steps to preserve peace and stability.”

The protocol imposes trade controls on goods moving between the UK and Northern Ireland as they could enter the EU’s internal market through the open border with Ireland.

But the bill gives the government the power to make its own arrangements to replace large parts of the protocol and ease controls.

Parts of the protocol would effectively be suspended by legislation, with ministers given the power to make regulations to make their own arrangements.

Ms Truss said this would include red and green lanes to ease controls on most goods traded from the UK to Northern Ireland and allow businesses to sell products in the province without having to comply with EU rules.

The government would also be able to apply VAT cuts and other tax and spending measures in Northern Ireland, while the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in overseeing the protocol would be drastically scaled back.

It also emerged Monday that the bill includes so-called “Clause 15 powers,” which would give ministers highly controversial back-up powers to suspend parts of the protocol that don’t relate to shared travel territory, north-south cooperation or relate to human rights if they believe they are causing political and economic disruption in Northern Ireland.

It could take at least a year for the laws to introduce practical changes on the ground in Northern Ireland, as they will take months to pass Parliament while the government is yet to draft new systems to allow its preferred regimes to work.

MPs are expected to hold a first vote on the legislation before the summer recess.

Ms Truss briefed her EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on the measures this morning.

After their conversation, Mr. Sefcovic said: “Unilateral action damages mutual trust and is a formula for uncertainty.”

In a separate conversation, which lasted just 12 minutes, Mr Coveney told the Foreign Secretary the legislation marked a “particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit, particularly as Secretary Truss has not held any significant negotiations with the EU since February”.

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