The U.K. government is prepared to “ditch” the treaty governing post-Brexit trade to Northern Ireland if European Commission negotiators don’t concede key British demands next week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Friday.
Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland, Johnson said his government could trigger Article 16 – the part of the Northern Ireland protocol giving the U.K. and EU an option to waive its rules unilaterally — if the EU doesn’t agree to reduce the scope of border controls being sought on goods shipped from England, Scotland and Wales.
Johnson’s government has repeatedly delayed the introduction of customs and sanitary requirements on many categories of goods, including a proposed ban on British chilled meat shipments to Northern Ireland.
In July, its “Northern Ireland Protocol: The Way Forward” document proposed, in effect, to make such delays permanent as part of a lighter-touch regime. The U.K. proposals would require EU officials to trust their British counterparts not to let restricted goods leak into the EU single market via the Republic of Ireland.
“We hope that we can fix this thing. This is not a problem that we wanted,” Johnson said.
“The protocol could in principle work. It’s got enough leeway in the language for it to be applied in a commonsensical way without creating too many checks down the Irish Sea,” he said.
But when asked whether this meant Britain would not trigger Article 16 next week, Johnson kept that option open.
“It depends on what the EU brings forward, and whether they’re willing to negotiate seriously about removing the obstructions that we’ve currently got,” he said. “It means fixing it [the protocol] or ditching it.”
He said Britain’s “fundamental problem” with the protocol was that it required British authorities “to operate in an environment where the EU system can decide when and how many checks to carry out.”
The U.K.-EU protocol agreement was designed to avoid any physical border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by shifting such checks on British imports to Northern Ireland’s ports. Under terms of the protocol, Northern Irish firms can freely import from the EU and freely export both to the EU and Britain.