LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson renewed Britain’s threats on Monday to break a Brexit deal with the European Union, blaming it for a political crisis blocking the formation of a new government in Northern Ireland.
Johnson said action would be “necessary” if the EU did not agree to overhaul post-Brexit trade rules which he said destabilize Northern Ireland’s delicate political balance.
Johnson held private talks with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties, urging them to get back to work. But his public message was aimed at the EU27, which he accused of refusing to give in on post-Brexit border controls.
“I hope that the position of the EU will change. If not, action will be needed,” Johnson wrote in the Belfast Telegraph.
The government is expected to present a bill on Tuesday that would give Britain the power to override parts of its Brexit treaty with the EU.
EU member Ireland has warned that a unilateral move by Britain could jeopardize the entire post-Brexit trade deal the UK and the bloc struck over the past months of tough negotiations ahead of the UK’s exit from the bloc in 2020.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the UK position “calls into question the functioning of the ATT” – the trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU.
Northern Ireland elected a new Assembly earlier this month in a vote that saw Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein win the most seats. It was the first time that a party that sought to unite with the Republic of Ireland had won an election in Northern Ireland, a bastion of Protestant unionist power.
The Democratic Unionist Party came second and refuses to form a government, or even allow the assembly to sit, until Johnson’s government removes post-Brexit controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Under power-sharing rules put in place as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, a government cannot be formed without the cooperation of the nationalist and unionist parties.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a border with the EU. When Britain left the bloc and its borderless free trade area, an agreement was reached to keep Ireland’s land border free of customs posts and other checks, as an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in the north. Ireland. Instead, checks are carried out on certain goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The arrangement is opposed by Northern Ireland trade unionists, who say the new controls have placed a burden on businesses and frayed ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The UK government agrees the regulations, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, destabilize a peace deal that relies on support from the Protestant Unionist and Catholic Nationalist communities.
“The DUP has a mandate to see the protocol replaced with arrangements that restore our place in Britain’s internal market,” party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said after meeting with Johnson on Monday. “Our mandate will be respected.”
But while the DUP wants the protocol scrapped, most other parties in Northern Ireland want to keep it, with some tweaks.
The EU says the treaty cannot be renegotiated, but is willing to show flexibility to ease the burden of controls.
Johnson, however, accused the EU of failing to acknowledge that the arrangements were not working.
“We don’t want to remove it, but we believe it can be fixed,” Johnson said after meeting with the parties at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast.
He said he would prefer to do this through talks with the EU, but “to have the assurance we also need to proceed with a legislative solution”.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald accused the UK government of “cynical antics” and “appeasement of the DUP”.
“It seems absolutely extraordinary to us that the British government is proposing to legislate to break the law” by overriding the Brexit treaty, she said.
New legislation would take months to pass through parliament, but the unilateral decision would immediately anger the EU, which would retaliate with legal action – and possibly trade sanctions. Even after Brexit, the bloc is Britain’s biggest economic partner.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said he had spoken to the head of the EU Council, Charles Michel, and “agreed that the only way to resolve this issue was through substantive discussions between the Union European Union and the Government of the United Kingdom”.
Coveney said a row between the UK and the EU ‘is the last thing Europe needs right now’ as it seeks unity in response to Ukraine’s invasion by Russia.
“It’s a moment of calm,” Coveney told a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. “This is a time for dialogue. Now is the time for compromise and partnership between the EU and the UK to resolve these outstanding issues.”
Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this story.
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