The UK has launched an attempt to substantially rewrite the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol that Boris Johnson signed up to in 2019, arguing “we cannot go on as we are” given the “ongoing febrile political climate” in the region.
But as he unveiled the UK’s blueprint for an alternative, the Brexit minister stopped short of ripping up the document completely or arguing the time was right to trigger the article 16 provision that enables either the UK or EU to suspend part of the arrangements in extreme circumstances.
“The difficulties we have in operating the Northern Ireland protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU,” David Frost warned, adding there was still time to do a fresh deal rather than walk away by triggering article 16.
“We concluded that it is not the right moment to do so,” said Lord Frost.
But he warned that “these proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol. We do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face.”
In a foreword to the 28-page document, Frost and the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, say the proposals will “not dispense with many of its [Northern Ireland protocol] concepts” but hoped to create “a stronger long-term foundation to achieve shared interests”.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Frost called for a “new balance” in the protocol that will address the disruption to business and the trade barriers across the Irish Sea.
He said negotiations with the EU “have not got to the heart of the problem” and called for a temporary “standstill” period including the suspension of all legal action by the EU, and the operation of grace periods to allow continued trade of goods such as chilled meats including sausages.
Frost told peers “we should return to a normal treaty framework similar to other international arrangements”, which had echoes of reports last year that Boris Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings had persuaded members of the European Research Group of MPs last year to vote for the protocol because it could be changed later.
The UK also wants to scrap the involvement of EU institutions and the European court of justice in policing and governing the protocol, something that will be anathema to Brussels.
Frost said the UK was “willing to explore exceptional arrangements around data sharing and cooperation” and “penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland”.
The latter has echoes of the “honesty box” concept first floated in 2019 as an alternative to the Irish border backstop, which proponents said would have done away with the need for border checks allowing businesses to self-report the movement of goods with an online system for VAT payments.
The paper also proposes “a full dual regulatory regime” that would allow manufactured, plant or animal goods to “be able to circulate within Northern Ireland if they meet UK or EU rules”. This will prompt questions as to why the UK would not accept a veterinary agreement on the free flow of food supplies that complied with EU standards.
Anton Spisak, a Brexit analyst at the Tony Blair Institute, said the move amounted to a “renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement” as it was “asking for changes to fundamental provisions of the protocol, especially article 12, that the joint committee [EU-UK joint governing body] has no powers to amend and modify”.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, said the breakdown was entirely predictable. “The country will be asking: is this bad faith or simple incompetence?” she said, adding that instability had “destroyed trust in the UK government – an essential component of the Good Friday agreement”.
Instead of offering reassurances to business, the government is making “more threats to tear up the protocol with nothing to take its place”, Haigh said.
Businesses in Northern Ireland urged an agreed solution to be implemented as fast as possible, warning of severe consequences for the economy. Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said any solution had to be mutual. “Without this, there can be no stability. This could also have severe consequences for consumers across the UK” in the event of a trade war triggered by a breakdown in relations over the protocol.