UK Brexit minister David Frost declared in a speech in Lisbon that the Northern Ireland Protocol “has to change” and said he is sharing a new version of the pact in what will be seen as a challenge to the European Union.
The protocol instituted custom checks between Northern Ireland and the British mainland as part of the 2019 divorce deal.
The growing dispute could derail future relations between the UK and EU, which has rejected any renegotiation of the laboriously negotiated protocol.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, will lay out his own proposal on Wednesday for tweaks to the Northern Ireland accord – a binding international treaty.
Mr Frost said he still sees room for a negotiation with the EU over how to address London’s concerns without triggering a larger trade war.
“There are several stages in this process where everybody can look carefully at it and decide to pull back from the brink,” he said.
The UK signed the protocol in good faith and hoped that the protocol would work effectively, Mr Frost said, adding that it has become clear that it’s not working as intended.
Mr Frost said he is sharing with the EU a new “forward-looking” Northern Ireland protocol, aimed at replacing the existing version – an agreement struck when the UK did not know whether it would sign a trade deal with the bloc.
The original protocol defaulted to “excessive rigidity,” Mr Frost said, which is now “needlessly harming” Northern Ireland. The protocol now needs to be brought into line with the comprehensive trade deal. He criticized the system of governance, with the European Court of Justice at its apex.
“Our proposal looks more like a normal treaty in how its governed,” Mr Frost said.
“That may include using Article 16 if necessary,” Mr Frost said, referring to the mechanism that would suspend parts of the protocol. “We would not go down this road gratuitously or with any particular pleasure.”
The protocol is “the biggest source of mistrust between us,” Mr Frost declared, saying it has lost consent in part of Northern Ireland. “The protocol is not working.”
“It has to change,” he said.
Mr Frost said the UK is never going to adopt the same level of border controls as the EU, because the government doesn’t believe the risks require them.
He added that the broader aim of the Brexit move was to boost democracy in the UK and to boost economic and political opportunities, but that the UK still wants friendly relations with the EU.
“Competition between us is likely to be helpful to us both. But alienation would be a serious historical error,” he said. “The bumpiness of the last four years must not be doubted, but the prize of entering into a new era of relations cannot be doubted either.”
Mr Frost said that fixing the protocol is a “prerequisite” for getting to a better place in a relationship with the EU. And he said that Brexit has changed the UK’s international interests with Europe and beyond.
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern described the tactics of the UK’s Brexit negotiating team as “deplorable”.
The EU was trying to find solutions to the situation while it looked like “the representative from the UK was out to do everything to make life almost impossible,” Mr Ahern told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny show.
“He might think that’s very smart negotiation, but I think it’s deplorable. In normal business people just don’t do things like that,” Mr Ahern said. – Additional reporting by Bloomberg