Brandon Lewis says Northern Ireland Protocol is ‘not working' as Liz Truss prepares to act
Introducing legislation suspending parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol was “never on the cards” for this week, according to a Cabinet minister.
Following today’s Cabinet meeting, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is set to announce a domestic law that, if passed, would overwrite elements of the Brexit treaty with the European Union.
But while Ms Truss is planning in the Commons to announce her intention to bring forward the legislation in an attempt to restore power-sharing in Stormont, the Bill could be delayed until the summer.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said the UK Government did not intend to bring new legislation on the protocol forward this week due to debates taking place on the Queen’s Speech.
But he argued the protocol is “not working properly” and said ministers would “not take anything off the table” when it comes to solving the border issues.
He told Sky News: “Something like that this week was never on the cards.
“But what we have always said is that we will not take anything off the table.”
The UK wants to resolve the problems “by agreement with the EU”, Mr Lewis said.
But he warned “we reserve the right to do what we need to do” to address tensions caused by the protocol.
The protocol, which was negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland after Britain left the EU in order to protect the 1998 negotiated peace accord following decades of sectarian violence.
The terms effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and create a hard border down the Irish Sea.
But since signing the deal, ministers have complained that Brussels has insisted on overly stringent checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is causing trade disruption and community tensions.
Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman said EU proposals for administering the protocol are “highly bureaucratic and pretty useless” given UK food standards are “equivalent or higher” than those set by Brussels.
The former Conservative MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the bloc is suggesting that the same background checks, including veterinary checks, required for the Republic of Ireland are also needed to send goods from other parts of the UK to Northern Ireland.
“Incidentally that means that every piece of butter in a sandwich has to have an EU vet certificate, so it’s highly bureaucratic and pretty pointless,” he said.
The UK Government is arguing for “green lanes” to be put in place whereby goods travelling between GB and NI and not destined to travel to the Republic of Ireland would not be subject to the same level of checks as those entering EU territory.
Mr Lewis said the EU’s proposals for lifting grace periods, which mean full checks are not in place, are “not viable” and would “make matters materially worse”.
He said Brussels’ interpretation of the protocol is going against its core principles by failing to respect the UK’s internal markets and causing friction that is preventing Northern Ireland from forming a new executive.
The row over the treaty has created an impasse in efforts to form a devolved government administration in Belfast, with the Democratic Unionist Party refusing to join an executive unless its concerns over the arrangements are addressed.
A majority of MLAs in Stormont’s newly elected Assembly represent parties that support retaining the protocol, with many arguing that the arrangement offers the region protection from some of the negative economic consequences of Brexit.
They also point to the unfettered access Northern Ireland traders have to sell into the EU single market as a key benefit of the protocol.
A Foreign Office source said Ms Truss’ priority is to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and denied that she is trying to “pick a fight” with Brussels.
There are fears the move to unilaterally rewrite parts of the deal risks a trade war with the EU during a cost-of-living crisis.
The PA news agency understands Ms Truss’ ambition is to lay legislation addressing the issues created by the protocol in Parliament within a couple of weeks – and certainly before the summer.
But the overwhelming preference is thought to remain a negotiated solution.
The Global Britain (Strategy) Committee, which considers matters relating to the UK’s trade priorities, met on Tuesday, followed by full Cabinet, with Ms Truss due to deliver a statement to the Commons.
The European Commission has urged Britain to enter talks about the bloc’s proposals on the protocol as a “much better course than engaging unilaterally”.
Daniel Ferrie, a commission spokesman, told reporters in Brussels that the EU package offered during negations in October were “not a ‘take it or leave it’” offer.
“The vice-president (Maros Sefcovic) said himself in his statement on Thursday that we made clear there is still potential to be explored in our proposals,” he said.