The UK has launched an attempt to substantially rewrite the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol that Boris Johnson signed up to in 2019, arguing that “we cannot go on as we are” given the “ongoing febrile political climate” in the region.
But as he unveiled the UK’s blueprint for an alternative, the Brexit minister stopped short of ripping up the document completely or arguing that the time was right to trigger the Article 16 provision, which enables either the UK or EU to suspend part of the arrangements in extreme circumstances.
“The difficulties we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU,” warned Lord Frost, adding there was still time to do a fresh deal rather than triggering article 16.
“We concluded that it is not the right moment to do so,” said Frost.
The proposals include the removal of customs barriers for goods from Great Britain sold in Northern Ireland and the controversial removal of any involvement of European institutions or the European court of justice in enforcing the protocol.
The European Commission immediately ruled out any renegotiation.
Maroš Šefčovič, the EU vice-president in charge of EU-UK relations, said in a statement: “The protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is the joint solution that the EU found with the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Lord Frost – and was ratified by the UK parliament – to address the unique challenges that Brexit, and the type of Brexit chosen by the British government, poses for the island of Ireland.”
He said the EU had sought “flexible, practical solutions to overcome the difficulties” that citizens in Northern Ireland were experiencing, but warned that “we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol”.
Frost told peers that the proposals would “require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol … but such change was necessary”.
In a foreword to the 28-page document, Frost and the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, say the proposals will “not dispense with many of its [Northern Ireland protocol] concepts”, but hoped to create “a stronger long-term foundation to achieve shared interests”.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Frost called for a “new balance” in the protocol that would address the disruption to business and the trade barriers across the Irish Sea.
He said negotiations with the EU had “not got to the heart of the problem” and called for a temporary standstill period, including suspension of all legal action by the EU, and grace periods to allow continued trade of goods such as chilled meats, including sausages.
Frost told peers: “We should return to a normal treaty framework similar to other international arrangements.” This had echoes of reports that Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings had persuaded members of the European Research Group of MPs last year to vote for the protocol because it could be changed later.
The paper also proposes “a full dual regulatory regime” that would allow manufactured, plant, or animal goods to “be able to circulate within Northern Ireland if they meet UK or EU rules”.
Frost said the UK was willing to explore “penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland”.
This would be paired with an “honesty box”, a concept which would involve traders filling out no paperwork, but opening their entire supply chain to inspection.
The UK believes this will remove barriers to supermarkets, online shoppers, and manufacturers.
Anton Spisak, a Brexit analyst at the Tony Blair Institute, said the move amounted to a “renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement” as it was “asking for changes to fundamental provisions of the protocol, especially article 12, that the joint committee [EU-UK joint governing body had] no powers to amend and modify”.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, said the breakdown was entirely predictable. “The country will be asking, ‘Is this bad faith or simple incompetence?’” she said, adding that instability had “destroyed trust in the UK government – an essential component of the Good Friday agreement”.
Businesses in Northern Ireland urged an agreed solution to be implemented as fast as possible, warning of severe consequences for the economy.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said any solution had to be mutual. “Without this, there can be no stability.”