LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to resolve a standoff with the European Union over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade rules, but he kept open the option of unilateral action that the EU says could start a trade war.
Johnson was due to travel to Belfast on Monday (May 16) to urge local political leaders to form a new power-sharing government, a key institution under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
After elections this month, pro-British unionists refused to join a new administration because of their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol which governs post-Brexit trade.
Johnson, in excerpts of an article to be published by the Belfast Telegraph newspaper which were released late on Sunday, said reform of the Protocol was essential for Northern Ireland to move forward.
“There is without question a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected,” he said. “Our shared objective must be to the create the broadest possible cross-community support for a reformed Protocol in 2024.”
Johnson agreed to the Protocol in 2019 to allow Britain to leave the EU’s single market and customs union without controls being re-imposed on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, a vital part of the peace deal.
But the plan effectively introduced a customs borders border between Britain and Northern Ireland, incensing many Unionists.
Johnson has been trying to renegotiate the Protocol and he has threatened unilateral action if the EU does not agree to London’s proposals.
“I hope the EU’s position changes,” he said in his newspaper article. “If it does not, there will be a necessity to act.”
“The government has a responsibility to provide assurance that the consumers, citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland are protected in the long-term. We will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to parliament in the coming days”.
Earlier on Sunday, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney urged Johnson not to introduce new trade laws that he said could undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Coveney said London, Dublin and Brussels could find solutions “but sabre-rattling and grand-standing in Westminster, ratcheting up tension, is not the way to do it,” he told Sky News television.
Asked about the risk of punishing EU trade measures if London pressed ahead on its own, he said: “There’s no way the EU can compromise if the UK is threatening unilateral action to pass domestic legislation to set aside international obligations under an international treaty.”
The United States has called for continued dialogue between Britain and the EU to resolve the standoff.