Europe

Brexit: UK’s Lord Frost offers EU ‘new legal text’ on N Ireland

The UK”s Brexit minister has proposed a “new legal text” to replace the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, in a major speech in Portugal.

David Frost said he was sharing the document with the European Commission on Tuesday, the day before Brussels is due to unveil more details of its own proposals.

The minister’s address in Lisbon follows a war of words between London and Brussels over the post-Brexit arrangements set out in the agreement, and the respective good will of each side.

Frost repeated that the UK government may resort to triggering Article 16 of the protocol, suspending the agreement altogether.

The protocol has brought trade disruption between Britain and Northern Ireland, infuriating unionists, and London has postponed indefinitely new border checks due to have come into effect under the treaty.

Boris Johnson’s government has made no secret of the fact that it wants the protocol changed, but the EU has ruled out renegotiating an international treaty struck only two years ago.

The facts on the ground were that the protocol was not working, Frost told the audience at the British embassy in Lisbon.

It had lost the consent of people in Northern Ireland and was not protecting the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA) — the 1998 peace accord that put an end to three decades of sectarian violence. “It has to change,” he added.

The key feature of balance in the Belfast agreement was being “shredded”, the minister went on. The UK was being asked to apply a full boundary within the country, apply EU law, and settle disputes in EU courts.

The UK’s proposals would avoid the need for checks, allow goods to circulate, protect the EU’s single market and above all, trade between Northern Ireland and Britain, Frost said. The UK would be ready to discuss new EU proposals, but a solution would “need significant change”.

The “new legal text” being shared with the Commission would be “forward looking”. The minister argued that when the original protocol was struck in 2019, it wasn’t known whether the UK and the EU would strike a post-Brexit trade deal or not. As a result, the protocol “defaulted to excessive rigidity”.

Now that a “far-reaching” trade deal had been agreed, he said, it made sense to have a new agreement in place for Northern Ireland.

On arbitration, the question of governance was not a side issue, he said, and the current arrangements “will not work as part of a durable settlement”. The British government has recently raised objections to the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), as set out in the protocol to regulate Northern Ireland’s continued adherence to EU single market rules on goods.

The protocol — agreed as part of the legally binding Brexit divorce deal that took the UK out of the EU in early 2020 — has effectively created a trade sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in order to avoid a hard land border between the province and the Irish Republic.

The European Commission has let it be known it will offer special provisions to minimise the protocol’s effect, that are expected to be unveiled on Wednesday.

Euronews reported last week that these include dramatically reducing the number of checks, and allowing Northern Irish consumers access to products from Britain such as chilled meats.

But the British government has said nothing short of a major overhaul of the protocol will be acceptable. In a speech last week to the ruling Conservative Party conference, Lord Frost accused the EU of “heavy-handed actions” that had brought a collapse in public support.

There has been massive frustration in Brussels at what is seen as the UK attempting to move the goalposts on the protocol — such as raising new issues such as the role of the European court.

The deal Boris Johnson struck with Brussels in October 2019 broke the long deadlock over Northern Ireland that had delayed Brexit itself. It paved the way for the divorce deal with the EU, a general election that the Conservatives won emphatically, and finally the UK’s exit from the EU in January 2020.

The prime minister’s deal — he called it “excellent” at the time — did away with his predecessor Theresa May’s ill-fated “backstop” measure, which his wing of the Conservative Party had strongly opposed, arguing it could have kept the UK in the EU for years.

Watch David Frost’s speech back in the video player above.

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