Friday, May 13, 2022

We will not give in to blackmail over Northern Ireland, the EU warns

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The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has warned Brussels will not give in to threats or blackmail as the raging dispute over the Northern Ireland border moves one step closer to triggering a trade war.

Maros Sefcovic effectively accused Boris Johnson of lying about the consequences of leaving the EU and said it was time for “honesty” about the problems created by the UK government’s chosen form of a hard Brexit.

Insisting that the 27-nation bloc was united in rejecting UK calls for a rewrite of the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, he sent a strong message to London: “We in the EU never work with threats, we never work with blackmail , we try to work with constructive engagement and that is what I advocate.”

The European Commission vice-president spoke after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told him Britain had “no choice” but to take unilateral action unless Brussels submitted to its call for new concessions to the protocol, which effectively includes a tariff border created between northern states Ireland and mainland Britain.

Her comments in crisp phone calls with Mr Sefcovic paved the way for publication within days of legislation to repeal the protocol signed by Mr Johnson in 2020 to keep Ireland’s border open after Brexit.

The Foreign Secretary expressed her “regret” at the rejection of Britain’s demand to revise Mr Sefcovic’s negotiating mandate, saying: “If the EU did not show the necessary flexibility to help resolve these issues, we would have no choice as a responsible government but to act”.

Her ultimatum came hours after Attorney General Suella Braverman announced she had received legal advice that tearing up parts of the protocol would be lawful because the UK believes it was implemented by Brussels.

Speaking on BBC Question Time on Thursday night, Ms Braverman said action against protocol was becoming “painfully, apparently necessary”.

Meanwhile, former Brexit Secretary Lord Frost writes The Telegraph, said the government now had “no choice” but to tear up “part or all of the protocol”. He urged Mr Johnson to act even if it leads to a “confrontation” with the bloc.

Downing Street acknowledged the situation was “very serious” but insisted a decision on action had not yet been taken. Talks are set to continue at official level in the coming days.

But Mr Sefcovic said the “likelihood” now is that the UK government would table a new version of the Single Market law that sparked a deep rift between London and Brussels in 2020 after ministers admitted its provisions to lift customs controls went against international law would be violated.

And a senior Downing Street source said Cabinet was united in the position that “something must be done” as the EU’s position appeared to be hardening.

“You never know what the EU will come back with,” the source said. “But they made their position clear today and we have no indication that will change.”

Mr Johnson himself pointed out that the union DUP’s refusal to enter into a power-sharing administration with Sinn Féin meant the government felt compelled to act as long as the protocol remains in its current form – a situation he described as implementing the Good Friday Agreement in Danger.

“It is clear that the trade union community will not accept the protocol,” said the Prime Minister. “It’s clear from what happened. We have to fix it.”

Any unilateral breach of the protocol by the UK could eventually lead to a trade war with Europe, allowing Brussels to suspend all or part of the zero-tariff trade deal signed in 2020.

The government’s former head of legal affairs, Sir Jonathan Jones QC, who had resigned over the Single Market Bill, warned that introducing the legislation needed to overrule the Protocol was “seriously problematic”.

“It feels like a repeat of what happened two years ago when the government proposed breaking international law,” he said.

“We know the EU will be very upset if that happens and I think it’s understandable that they would be upset because it would be a unilateral act and the relationship we will continue to need with the EU post would damage very badly -Brexit.”

However, it could take up to a year for the legislation to get through Parliament, with fierce opposition expected in the House of Lords, and government sources made it clear negotiations could continue during that time to try to secure a huge to avert an expensive collapse in trade relations.

Mr Sefcovic expressed “serious concern” about the impasse and warned it would be “unacceptable” if the UK backed away from the international treaty signed by Mr Johnson.

He warned that ambitions, outlined by the Prime Minister in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech, for the UK to further diverge from EU standards and rules would lead to “more complications, more difficulties, more controls” on cross-border goods.

Lamenting a lack of “political will” on the UK side to deal with proposed trade disruption solutions, the commission’s vice-president said: “Honesty about what the UK has signed on is required. Honesty that the EU cannot solve all the problems created by Brexit and the way the UK chose to do it.

“We will not renegotiate the protocol and the EU is unanimous on this position. Unilateral action that effectively overrides the protocol is not a solution.”

After being briefed by Mr Sefcovic on his talks with Ms Truss, Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said Dublin agreed to rejecting “threats by the UK Government of unilateral action and breaches of international law”.

“The way forward is partnership, dialogue and real negotiations, not threats and growing tensions,” Mr. Coveney said.

Ms Truss escalated tensions over the protocol on Tuesday with a statement warning that EU proposals to reduce trade friction would actually “bring us back”.

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