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Northern Ireland Protocol Bill: Will the UK really scrap an international agreement?

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As Conservative MPs reunited in the House of Commons for the first round of voting to elect Johnson’s successor, questions arise on how the new Prime Minister will deal with what is Johnson’s “legacy”. What will happen to the government’s plans to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol? The NI Protocol Bill is on course to pass through the House of Commons, but now that there is a vacuum at the centre of power, will the British Government pull away from its action over the protocol or will it keep going?

When the UK exited the European Union, it became clear that a new, special trading agreement was needed. Transporting goods from any country in the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland was becoming more difficult, because of a shared land border with an EU country: the Republic of Ireland. The European Union has strict trade rules and requires border checks whenever certain goods – food in particular – arrive from non-EU countries; for this reason, the UK and the EU agreed signing a Brexit deal. 

As part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, by signing the Northern Ireland Protocol it has been decided that inspections and checks at the border will be conducted between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, at Northern Ireland’s ports. Once checked, the goods can be moved into the Republic of Ireland.

However, despite the agreement, the UK government started sharing plans to change the protocol, claiming the alterations would make the flowing of goods easier. 

According to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill published by the government on 13 June 2022, two lanes would be created for goods imported from Britain to Northern Ireland: the green lane and the red lane. The green lane would be for those goods exempt from checks and customs controls, such as trusted traders transporting goods to NI and that will stay there. The red lane would be used for all those products that are moving to Ireland or any other European country, and that need to undergo checks and customs controls. In addition to the issues arising when it comes to long customs processes, the London government is trying to distance any trading relationship happening in the UK from the European monopoly, meaning that any dispute should be resolved by “independent arbitration” and not by the European Court of Justice. Moreover, another problem addressed in the bill concerns tax rules. Northern Irish businesses still follow EU rules when it comes to state aid and VAT and this means that any government payments or tax breaks have to follow the rules and limits set by the EU. The UK government believes that Northern Ireland should benefit from the same tax breaks as other places in the UK.

While the UK government believes that these alterations are the only answer to key issues affecting Northern Ireland after Brexit, many believe that there is no legal or political justification for wanting to change the protocol and whatever the challenges arising from the agreement, scrapping parts of it will only create new uncertainties. As the Irish Premier Martin said, it seems clear that the UK government wants to create chaos and instability and cause “economic vandalism” in Northern Ireland. Scrapping an international agreement like this one would also mean breaching international law, as the European Commission announced when it took legal action, on 15 June. Alongside the legal action, the European Commission launched  two infringement proceedings against the UK for not complying with what was agreed in the protocol. In particular, the UK failed to carry out its obligations related to EU’s sanitary and phytosanitary rules, and did not provide trade statistics data for Northern Ireland. The EU strongly advises to go back to negotiations in order to find practical way to improve the situation for Northern Ireland, but also to protect businesses and people in the UK and Scotland.

Carrying on with these plans would mean choosing the path of unilateralism, at the expense of partnership and dialogue. It seems though, that the UK Government will attempt to keep pushing ahead with its plans, as confirmed by the Commons Leader Mark Spencer. After all, unilateralism and a “hard” Brexit isn’t what the UK government was aiming at from the beginning, by leaving the European Union?

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