Britain was on a collision course with the European Union on Monday as it persisted in its plan to scrap parts of the trade deal struck with the bloc after Brexit.
Legislation rewriting trading rules for Northern Ireland was due to come into effect on Monday. first debate in the House of Commons, the first step in what could be a bumpy parliamentary process.
If approved by MPs, the legislation would remove controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, breaching parts of the trade deal Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed before Britain left the EU in 2020.
The British government said the rules hamper business and undermine peace in Northern Ireland. London alleges that its unilateral decision is justified under international law due to the “genuinely exceptional situation”.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said on Sunday that the aim was to “fix”, not eliminate, the trade agreement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
However, Johnson’s opposition claims the move is illegal and will destroy Britain’s international reputation. It also causes concern among some members of the prime minister’s Conservative Party, who already have doubts about Johnson’s trial – and popularity – after a series of ethics scandals and two special election defeats.
The EU has threatened to retaliate, raising the specter of a trade war between the two major economic partners.
The bloc’s ambassador to Great Britain, Joao Vale de Almeida, said that the British plan is “illegal because it is a violation of international law, a violation of EU law, British law and international law.”
“It is a treaty that we signed, ratified and even passed a general election in this country,” he told Times Radio.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a border with an EU country, Ireland. When Britain left the European Union and its borderless free trade area, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish land border free of customs posts and other controls, because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Instead, to protect Europe‘s single market, there are controls on some goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Johnson’s Conservative government claims that overzealous enforcement by the EU is causing the rules not to work as intended and causing a political crisis in Northern Ireland.
“We have a tradition, a community, that believes that things don’t really work in a way that they like or understand, there are unnecessary barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” Johnson said.
“All we are saying is that we can get rid of it without in any way jeopardizing the EU single market,” he said.
British unionists say the controls erode ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which they see as a threat to their British identity. Northern Ireland’s main party is blocking the formation of a new shared government in Belfast, saying it will not join until Brexit trade rules are scrapped.
“I want to see the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, and protocol gets in the way of that.”Lewis told Sky News. “We have to solve that. That is what this legislation will do.”
“Ultimately, we want to do this by agreement with the EU”he added. “But to do that, they have to show some flexibility and actually come and negotiate in a flexible way.”
(with information from AP)
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