Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday renewed Britain’s threat to break from part of the Brexit divorce deal that he signed with the European Union unless a dispute over Northern Ireland trade is resolved.
The U.K. has threatened to trigger an emergency break clause in the deal that lets either side suspend the agreement in extreme circumstances if there is no solution soon. That would bring legal action from the EU, and potentially economic sanctions that could spiral into a trade war.
Johnson said that answers to the problems of trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. “should be simple.”
“I think we need to fix it. I’m not convinced that the solutions we’re seeing do fix it,” he told reporters as he travelled to Rome for a Group of 20 summit. “We will have to take the steps that are necessary to protect the territorial integrity of the U.K. and the U.K.’s internal market.″
Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. and shares a border with EU member Ireland. It remains inside the EU’s tariff-free single market for goods, even though the U.K. left the 27-nation bloc at the end of 2020. That special status ensures there is an open border on the island of Ireland — a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process since the 1998 Good Friday accord. But it means a new customs border in the Irish Sea for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., even though they are part of the same country.
That has brought red tape for businesses, and caused problems with some goods reaching Northern Ireland. The new arrangements have also angered Northern Ireland’s British Unionists, who say the checks undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. and destabilize the delicate political balance on which peace rests.
The EU accuses Britain of trying to renegotiate a legally binding agreement that it signed less than a year ago; some EU officials say it shows the U.K. government can’t be trusted. The bloc has, however, agreed to make changes to the deal, offering to reduce checks on food, plants and animals entering Northern Ireland by as much as 80% and to cut paperwork for transport companies in half.
Britain has welcomed those proposals, but also is demanding that the EU’s top court be stripped of its role in resolving any disputes over the agreement and be replaced with independent arbitration — an idea the bloc flatly rejects.
The two sides are holding talks, but the U.K. says substantial differences remain.
Discussions are due to continue next week. The EU urged Britain on Friday to “engage constructively” with the bloc’s proposals.
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