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UK Plans Law to Override Brexit Deal in Challenge to EU

Dominic Raab, UK deputy prime minister (second left), and Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary (second right), during a Cabinet meeting in London, 17 May 2022. (Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson’s government plans to introduce legislation within weeks to override parts of the Brexit deal it negotiated with the European Union, a move that’s likely to escalate tensions with the bloc and raise the prospect of a trade war.

While the UK would prefer to reach a negotiated solution, the situation in Northern Ireland means Britain has to act, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the House of Commons on Tuesday. The government plans to proceed with the legislation in parallel with talks with the EU over the trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, she said.

“The urgency of the situation means we can’t afford to delay any longer,” Truss told lawmakers. “The Belfast Good Friday Agreement is under strain,” she said referring to the 1998 agreement that restored peace in Northern Ireland after decades of violence.

Johnson’s government is frustrated that the deal it signed has created a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, snarling trade and contributing to the collapse of the region’s devolved government. But Truss’s new plan risks sparking even greater disruption to commerce.

The EU is ready to suspend the entire trade agreement if Johnson makes good on his threats, and the bloc warned on Tuesday it was prepared to use “all measures” to punish the UK if the bill is enacted.

EU Concerns

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the U.K.’s plans are “damaging to trust” and will make it harder to find solutions to the impasse.

The announcement “raises significant concerns,” EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic said. “Should the UK decide to move ahead with a bill dis-applying constitutive elements of the protocol as announced today by the UK government, the EU will need to respond with all measures at its disposal.”

Johnson said in an interview on Sky News that he didn’t think a trade war was likely. “We don’t want to nix it, we want to fix it, and we will work with our EU partners to do it,” he said of the protocol. On Monday, he said the proposed legislation would act as “insurance” should the EU talks not resolve the UK’s concerns.

Truss’s much-anticipated statement comes after weeks of briefings and strongly-worded statements from the UK, threatening to renege on its commitments under the deal it signed with the EU more than two years ago. But the foreign secretary on Tuesday said “proceeding with the bill is consistent with our obligations.”

Read More: Why Are the UK and EU Heading Toward Another Brexit Crisis?: Q&A

“This is not about scrapping the protocol: our aim is to deliver on the protocol’s objectives,” Truss said.

Easing Trade

Despite conciliatory language about wanting to work with the EU, Truss made clear in her statement that the UK is willing to unilaterally override large parts of the protocol. The foreign secretary said she would set out Britain’s legal position in due course.

The planned legislation aims to restore the primacy of UK law over Northern Ireland, rather than the European Court of Justice. The UK’s aim is also to ensure that tax and other policies decided in London can also be applied to Northern Ireland in full.

Truss said the UK plans a “green channel” for goods shipped to Northern Ireland from Britain that will stay in the region. That will be underpinned by trusted trader programs and real-time data sharing with the EU, according to the government. Goods destined for the EU will undergo “the full checks and controls applied under EU law,” Truss said.

Opposition parties slammed the government’s approach, saying it reneges on a deal the country has already signed and risks a trade war that would exacerbate a cost of living crisis that’s squeezing household budgets for ordinary Britons.


“This is not a time for political posturing or high-stakes brinkmanship,” said Stephen Doughty, a Labour Party foreign affairs spokesman who led the main opposition’s response in the Commons. “When we seek to negotiate new deals abroad, does the government want to make other countries question whether we will keep our end of the bargain?”

The prospect of backtracking on a treaty also sits badly with some members of Parliament from Johnson and Truss’s own Conservative Party.

“Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins,” one Conservative MP, Simon Hoare, told the Commons. “I find it extraordinary that a Tory government needs to be reminded of that.”

But Truss’ statement was supported by the Democratic Unionist Party, the pro-UK party whose refusal to participate in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive because of concerns about the protocol is preventing the formation of a government there.

“The statement today is a welcome, if overdue step,” said the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, urging for progress in changing the protocol to take weeks, not months. He said his party would take “a graduated and cautious approach,” adding that “the foreign secretary will know that actions speak louder than words.”

In a message to the DUP, Johnson, for his part, said “all parties” in Northern Ireland should “get back around the table” to ensure its devolved administration resumes work.


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