Beleaguered Boris Johnson has exposed Britain to a trade war with the EU as he ripped up the Brexit deal his own government struck with Brussels barely three years ago.
The Prime Minister said today his plans to unilaterally redraw the Northern Ireland protocol were “not a big deal”, despite millions of working families living in fear of the looming cost of living crisis.
He claimed today legislation which reneges on the UK’s 2019 agreement, tabled by the government tonight, does not break international and is “trivial”, despite growing Tory unease in the wake of the Partygate scandal.
Ministers will get new powers to override elements of the protocol, in a move opposed by a majority of Stormont politicians, the EU and US President Joe Biden.
The arrangements currently require regulatory checks and customs declarations on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as the protocol was originally designed to keep the Irish land border free-flowing.
Under the new plan, green and red channels would be set up to remove extra paperwork for businesses trading within the UK, but with full checks on good entering the EU.
Northern Ireland would qualify from the same tax and spending policies as the rest of the UK, including on VAT.
Most controversially, any disputes would be resolved by independent arbitration and not by the European Court of Justice.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It says everything about ministers’ warped priorities that in the middle of a cost-of-living emergency, they announce legislation that could provoke a trade war and cause prices to skyrocket further.
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“Working people must not pay the price for this reckless move. The government must drop this bill, honour the agreement they signed up to and put practical solutions ahead of posturing.
“Ministers need to get back around the table with the EU as soon as possible and come to an agreement that protects jobs, rights and the Good Friday Agreement.
“The government must show that it respects international agreements to repair its now-trashed reputation as a trading partner.”
Speaking in Cornwall, Mr Johnson said: “We’ve got a problem at the moment, which is in Northern Ireland, the Stormont assembly, the government of Northern Ireland, can’t meet because of the effects of the protocol.
“What it does is it creates unnecessary barriers on trade east-west. What we can do is fix that.
“It’s not a big deal, we can fix it in such a way as to remove those bureaucratic barriers but without putting up barriers on trade moving north-south in the island of Ireland as well.”
He warned that a trade war over changes to the protocol would be a “gross overreaction” by Brussels when the UK wanted to ease bureaucracy.
The Government’s summary of its legal position said the move is justified under international law because of the “genuinely exceptional situation”.
It says: “The Government recognises that necessity can only exceptionally be invoked to lawfully justify non-performance of international obligations.
“This is a genuinely exceptional situation and it is only in the challenging, complex and unique circumstances of Northern Ireland that the Government has, reluctantly, decided to introduce legislative measures which, on entry into force, envisage the non-performance of certain obligations.
“It is the Government’s position that in light of the state of necessity, any such non-performance of its obligations contained in the Withdrawal Agreement and/or the protocol as a result of the planned legislative measures would be justified as a matter of international law.
“This justification lasts as long as the underlying reasons for the state of necessity are present. The current assessment is that this situation and its causes will persist into the medium to long term.”
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill called the move “reckless and disgraceful”.
Speaking to the media today, she said: “Today’s action by Boris Johnson in Westminster is absolutely reckless, it is disgraceful, it does nothing to serve the interests of the people here.
“It flies in the face of an international agreement which he himself negotiated. It is in clear breach of international law.”
Ministers have also claimed that the protocol – which is opposed by the hardline DUP – is a “serious threat” to the Good Friday agreement.
The DUP said publication of the bill did not guarantee the party’s return to power-sharing, while a majority of members of the NI assembly signed an open letter to the PM saying they rejected his “reckless” proposal.
Brussels criticised the moves to dismantle the protocol with the EU’s Maros Sefcovic blasting: “Unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust and a formula for uncertainty.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has accused the Government of deliberately trying to “ratchet up tensions” around the protocol.
Irish premier Micheal Martin, meanwhile, said it is “regrettable” that the UK is to renege on an international treaty.
Speaking in Co Cork on Monday, Mr Martin said the way to resolve the impasse is through substantive negotiations.
“It’s very regrettable for a country like the UK to renege on an international treaty,” he said.
“I think it represents a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries like ourselves, the UK and all across Europe is that we honour international agreements that we enter into.”
Mr Martin said the current agreement was ratified by British parliament and approved by the Prime Minister.
“I’ve had this discussion with him and, in our view, the only way to resolve issues around the operation of the protocol is to have substantive negotiations between the UK and the EU,” Mr Martin added.
“We do not accept the presentation by the British Government and certain ministers to the effect that the EU is inflexible. That is most definitely not the case and the EU has been very proactive in the last year in endeavouring to seek solutions to issues around the operation of the protocol.”