U.K. to Set Out Preferred Plan for Post-Brexit Northern Ireland

The U.K. is heading for yet another round of quarreling with the European Union over its post-Brexit future, with Boris Johnson’s government preparing to set out key demands on Northern Ireland and the two sides at loggerheads on the status of Gibraltar.

Ministers will announce Wednesday in Parliament how they want to overhaul the so-called Northern Ireland protocol -- the part of the Brexit divorce treaty which sought to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The step will almost certainly antagonize the EU, which has said the agreement cannot be rewritten.

The British move comes a day after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab lashed out at the EU’s plan for a post-Brexit deal for Gibraltar, accusing the bloc of trying to undermine the U.K.’s “sovereignty” over the territory. At the same time, Johnson’s government is trying to persuade France to do more to stop migrants from trying to cross the English Channel.

The U.K. and EU have been locked in a series of arguments since Britain completed its separation from the political bloc at the start of the year. But the statement on Northern Ireland threatens to raise tensions to a new level.

Trade Spat

The British government blames the Northern Ireland protocol, which created an effective trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., for causing significant economic disruption, triggering disputes on issues ranging from access to medicines and the movement of chilled meats.

U.K. to Set Out Preferred Plan for Post-Brexit Northern Ireland

Johnson has accused the EU of being too onerous by requiring excessive border checks on foods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU’s single market. The bloc counters that the U.K. is backsliding on commitments made in a legally-binding international treaty.

According to the Financial Times, the government will outline a plan to eliminate most checks and warn that the U.K. could invoke Article 16 -- an emergency trigger that allows either side to suspend parts of the deal -- if the EU doesn’t give way. Johnson’s office declined to comment.

‘Disruption’

The implementation of the protocol, “is causing significant disruption for the people of Northern Ireland,” a spokesperson for Johnson said in a statement Tuesday, following a meeting between the prime minister and his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin. “The EU must show pragmatism and solutions needed to be found to address the serious challenges that have arisen.”

Pressure is also building on Johnson from business to find a solution. Marks & Spencer Group Plc said a fifth of its products aren’t making it to the Republic of Ireland because of “byzantine, pointless and honestly pettifogging” bureaucracy following Britain’s exit from the EU.

M&S, one of the largest U.K.-based retailers operating across Ireland as a whole, has cut 800 product lines which “have become unworkable to deliver,” Chairman Archie Norman wrote in a letter to Brexit minister David Frost.

He warned that unless a workable solution is found by Oct. 1, Northern Ireland consumers could be faced with the same lack of choice as their counterparts south of the border. Prices are also likely to rise, he said.

Gibraltar Squabble

Meanwhile Raab is due to meet his Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel Albares in London on Wednesday. The British foreign minister criticized the European Commission’s draft mandate for negotiations on Gibraltar on Tuesday, accusing the bloc of trying to undermine the U.K.’s “sovereignty” over the territory on Spain’s southern tip.

The question of Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU is fraught with political tensions. The territory has been under British control since 1713 but is contested by Spain. Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish premier, has previously attempted to use Brexit as a way to ramp up pressure for talks over the future sovereignty of the British Overseas Territory.

Spain and the U.K. sealed a last-minute accord on Dec. 31 to avoid stricter controls on the movement of people and goods to the territory.

Migration is another thorny issue between the U.K. and its European neighbors, and is once again dominating the British newspaper front pages. Johnson’s government agreed to pay more than 54 million pounds ($74 million) to France so it can double the number of enforcement officers on French beaches trying to stop migrants crossing the English Channel.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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