Boris Johnson has been urged to abandon his attempt to override the Northern Ireland element of the Brexit deal in a forceful intervention by the German and Irish governments.
The UK prime minister is pushing ahead with new legislation that cancels parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, in an attempt to persuade the Democratic Unionist party to rejoin the power-sharing agreement at Stormont, which has been in limbo since the May local elections.
The changes address customs, regulation, subsidy control and governance, issues which have enraged some unionists in Northern Ireland.
In a joint statement on Sunday, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney and his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, warned there was “no legal or political justification” for the move.
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss wrote in the Financial Times last week that the protocol was undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence. Truss argued that it was essential to use legislation to “fix the specific problems” in the protocol — while maintaining other elements — in a way that was “necessary and legal”.
But the EU has signalled that Britain could end up locked in a trade war with the bloc if it does not deviate from the plan to rip up the agreement.
In their riposte, Baerbock and Coveney said the British government had agreed to the protocol two years ago after “long and hard negotiations”. Under its terms, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods but checks are conducted on shipments entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Since then the EU had already given ground by bringing forward proposals to simplify the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and changed its own laws to address concerns around the supply of medicines.
Baerbock and Coveney argued in an Observer newspaper opinion piece that the British government had chosen not to engage in good faith with the proposals. “Instead of the path of partnership and dialogue, it has chosen unilateralism,” they wrote. “There is no legal or political justification for unilaterally breaking an international agreement entered into only two years ago.”
The tabling of the new legislation would not fix the challenges and instead would only create a new set of uncertainties, they warned.
In a criticism of the DUP, they also pointed out that in the May elections to the Northern Ireland assembly, 52 out of 90 members elected had been supportive of the protocol.
Germany appears to be backing a hardening of the EU’s approach towards Britain’s attempts to dilute the Northern Ireland protocol.
A readout of the EU General Affairs Council from June 23, seen by the Financial Times, suggests that Germany was among several countries arguing that the UK’s actions were “clear and undisputable breaches of its international obligations”.
Although Germany called for the European Commission to “remain calm and adopt a gradual approach”, it also underlined the need to prepare for “all potential scenarios” and keep all options on the table.