Boris warns EU against trade war as he dismisses NI protocol changes as 'trivial'

13 June 2022, 06:52 | Updated: 13 June 2022, 10:16

Boris Johnson has spoken to LBC about the planned changes to the Northern Ireland Brexit deal
Boris Johnson has spoken to LBC about the planned changes to the Northern Ireland Brexit deal. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Planned changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol are "trivial" and do not break international law, Boris Johnson has told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast.

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Mr Johnson also warned the EU against a trade war, saying it would be "a gross, gross overreaction".

When asked by Nick if the controversial plans to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol - due to be introduced to Parliament on Monday - were "dead in the water", the Prime Minister said: "No, absolutely not."

He went on: "It's a seaplane, this thing.

"It is going to take off from the water because it's the right thing, it's the right way forward."

He said the "balance and the symmetry" of the Good Friday Agreement needed to be respected and that at the moment one side of the debate was feeling "very, very estranged" - something that could be corrected with "trivial" changes to the legislation.

"What we have to respect - this is the crucial thing - is the balance and the symmetry of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement," he said.

"And we have to understand there are... broadly two ways of looking at the border issues and one community at the moment feels very, very estranged from the way things are operating, and very alienated.

"And we've just got to fix that, and it is relatively simple to do it, it's a bureaucratic change that needs to be made.

"It's frankly it's a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things."

When asked if the plans breached international law, Mr Johnson said he disagreed with the claim.

"I think our higher and prior legal commitment as a country is to the Belfast Good Friday agreement and to the balance and stability of that agreement," he said.

"We can [maintain] that, that's all we're trying to do."

Boris Johnson said the changes to the policy were 'trivial'
Boris Johnson said the changes to the policy were 'trivial'. Picture: Alamy

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has insisted the new Bill is "lawful" and "correct" but Labour has accused the Government of "law-breaking".

There is also likely to be some opposition from within Tory ranks, with a number of MPs believed to be unhappy with the legislation.

Read more: EU 'playing fast and loose' with peace in Northern Ireland, ex-DUP leader warns

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The Financial Times reported that an internal note had been circulating among those against the Bill, which said: "Breaking international law to rip up the Prime Minister's own treaty is damaging to everything the UK and Conservatives stand for."

The legislation will give ministers powers to override elements of the protocol, which was jointly agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to keep the Irish land border free-flowing.

The arrangements instead require regulatory checks and customs declarations on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Speaking on LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) minister Victoria Prentis said a number of easements for the Protocol were already in place but there are still "real difficulties" that need addressing.

"It's really difficult," she said.

"We've put in place a series of easements which enable us to do those exports at the moment, however there are difficulties... with other products that we might want to export, seed potatoes for example, oak trees for the Queen's Jubilee, that we are currently unable to send to Northern Ireland in the way that we'd want to from GB.

"So it's clear to me that while some aspects of the Protocol are working and with those easements we've put in place things can travel, there are real difficulties."

She added: "What is important is both that we put this legislation in place in case we're not able to come to an agreement, but also that we put a lot of welly into coming to sensible arrangements with the EU - I'm sure we can - in order to make sure that goods can flow freely not just north-south but also east-west."

Unionists in Northern Ireland are vociferously opposed to the international treaty, claiming it has undermined the region's place within the United Kingdom.

The DUP has blocked the formation of a new power-sharing government at Stormont following last month's Assembly election in protest.

The Bill due to come before Parliament will see the Government move without the consent of the EU to change the terms of the protocol in a bid to reduce the checks on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.

This could include allowing ministers to remove all customs processes for goods moving within the United Kingdom and enable the frictionless movement of agri-food goods staying within the UK.

It could also see businesses in Northern Ireland given the ability to choose whether to follow UK or EU regulations, depending on who they are trading with.

Read more: Nancy Pelosi threatens to block US/UK trade deal over Northern Ireland Protocol plans

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The EU has made clear that such steps would represent a breach of international law and could prompt retaliatory action from the bloc.

Mr Lewis has said he hopes the Bill will persuade the DUP to support the re-establishment of the Stormont institutions.

He has also said the Government will set out its legal position on the Bill when the legislation is introduced to Parliament on Monday.

Mr Lewis told Sky News on Sunday: "What we're going to do is lawful and it is correct.

"We will be setting out our legal position on this.

"People will see that what we're proposing resolves the key issues within the protocol that don't work."

But shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said "it does look like the Government plans to break international law".

She said: "This Government seems to be developing a record for law-breaking and it is not one that the Labour Party can support."

While Mr Lewis committed to publishing the Government's "legal position" on the matter, he insisted "governments don't publish details behind advice given to ministers".

Downing Street has said it will share only "a summary" of the legal advice it received with the public, which has led to accusations of a "cover-up".

A No 10 spokesman said on Friday: "The Bill has been agreed by the relevant cabinet committees and will be introduced to Parliament on Monday.

"We will, alongside the Bill, publish a summary of the legal advice."

Labour's shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle said it is "incumbent on ministers" to release the maximum possible legal advice, with "transparency about its origins".

Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman Alistair Carmichael said the public deserves "full transparency" over the plan's legal basis, warning he suspects a "cover-up".

Asked why Downing Street was publishing only a summary of the legal advice, and not disclosing it in full, Mr Lewis told Times Radio: "Well, governments don't publish details behind advice given to ministers... we have to have that free and open discussion as they're formulating policy.

"But we are going to set out the Government's legal position and our methodology for that."