Protocol change could hurt investment in Northern Ireland, says CBI chief
The UK and the European Union are set for a bitter legal battle following the publication of the government’s long-awaited bill to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Here are fears that the move, which united anti-Brexit parties with Stormont in opposition, could also trigger a trade war.
Last night the Belfast-born chief executive of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) slammed Boris Johnson’s government and accused ministers of ‘cleaning up’ Brexit which is hurting investment.
Tony Danker has called on the UK to resume talks with the EU as the government reveals plans to make unilateral changes to the controversial trade mechanism. “I don’t think it’s time to get noticed; I think it’s time to make a deal,” he said.
“I am a firm believer that Europeans are inflexible. At the same time, our measures…to take unilateral action in response are of no use.
The CBI chief warned that the row is already leading many countries to rethink investment.
“They look at the UK and think [there is a] combination of a bit of worry about Brexit,” he added.
A total of 52 MPs from Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Alliance have signed a joint letter rejecting plans by the PM to drop parts of the deal he agreed to in 2019. The new bill would Ministers to establish a ‘green lane’ allowing trusted traders to move goods unchecked – as long as the goods remain in the UK.
Goods supplied outside the Trusted Trader scheme or products destined for the Republic of Ireland and the EU would go through a red lane and face checks.
The EU opposes this decision and says it is a violation of international law.
Last night European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic expressed ‘significant concern’ and warned that the move put Northern Ireland businesses’ access to the single market at risk.
He also confirmed that the committee would seek to relaunch “infringement proceedings” against the UK, suspended since last September.
“Our goal will always be to ensure the implementation of the protocol,” Sefcovic added.
“Our reaction to unilateral action by the UK will reflect this objective and will be proportionate.”
The government has said the UK has the right under international law to act to reverse elements of its withdrawal agreement with the EU due to the “truly exceptional situation” in Northern Ireland.
In a summary of the legal advice it received regarding the bill, the government said the “doctrine of necessity” provided a clear justification in international law for non-performance of international obligations under “certain exceptional and limited”.
He said that position had been reached in Northern Ireland where the protocol had become an ‘impediment’ to the formation of a new power-sharing executive.
However, Prime Minister-in-waiting Michelle O’Neill called the actions of Mr Johnson and his government ‘dangerous’ because of the ‘clear breach of international law’ and the potential ‘to undermine the Good Friday Agreement “.
The Sinn Fein deputy chairman said there was no need for action which ‘follows the UK government tearing up the Stormont House agreement’ and ‘the DUP’s boycott of the Assembly’.
”The protocol works and is supported by a majority of MPs and the overwhelming majority of businesses. The northern economy is outperforming, business is growing and new jobs are being created,” added Ms. O’Neill.
She said all efforts should be aimed at making arrangements work with any changes sought through negotiations.
Meanwhile, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has welcomed the legislation, which he says will be measured against its seven tests to ensure it will ‘restore NI’s place within the UK internal market. and remedy the democratic deficit’ of the protocol.
The MP for Lagan Valley has dismissed criticism of the government’s plans which he says could lead to the restoration of Stormont – if passed. “With goodwill across the political spectrum, this legislation has the potential to secure a permanent pragmatic solution,” he said.
“The price is great; a solid foundation for political stability in Northern Ireland and positive prosperity for all. He warned ‘those who intend to use this bill to undermine the prime minister’ to stop ‘playing political games’.
Anton Spisak, who helped the government negotiate the Brexit deal, believes the proposals not only break international law but will halt efforts to find a compromise and lead to even more instability in Stormont.
“The overall effect of this bill is that it will make the position of the EU, as well as that of the DUP, more, not less, entrenched,” he said.
The Tony Blair Institute’s Senior Fellow for UK Policy called the plans “wrong in principle and counterproductive in practice”.
The proposals caused fury in Dublin. Taoiseach Micheal Martin said ‘it is very unfortunate that a country like the UK is reneging on an international treaty’ which ‘goes to the heart of the issue of trust’.
He added: “This represents a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries like us, the UK and all of Europe is that we honor the international agreements we make.”