Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday downplayed the prospect of triggering a UK trade war with the EU by threatening to pull post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland, despite European warnings that he risks breaching international law.
Johnson said London and Brussels must “fix” the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol which governs trade to and from the British province, but that both sides should keep a sense of proportion.
“We’re talking about really, in the scheme of things, a very, very small part of the whole European economy,” he told reporters during an unrelated visit to Sweden and Finland.
“Let me put it this way: I don’t think there’s any need for drama. This is something that just needs to be fixed.”
Johnson’s government has warned it is ready to take unilateral action “to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found” to key sticking points with the protocol.
Ministers have argued that it does not command cross-community support and that London needs to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence over British rule in Northern Ireland.
But the European Union has repeatedly ruled out renegotiating the terms of the deal.
The standoff comes as political tensions rise in Belfast after historic elections last week saw pro-Irish nationalists Sinn Fein become the biggest party for the first time and now bidding to lead a power-sharing executive.
However, the latest UK threats to overhaul the arrangements unilaterally have caused consternation in Brussels, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said as he met Northern Irish leaders.
– ‘Compromise’ –
Coveney said this week’s statements had “gone down really badly across the European Union” and rejected British claims that Brussels was being inflexible over its implementation.
“The (European) Commission has been showing a willingness to compromise,” he told reporters.
“What they are hearing and seeing from London is a rejection of that approach, towards a breach of international law.”
The protocol was signed separately from the Brexit trade deal between London and Brussels because Northern Ireland has the country’s only land border with the EU.
It keeps the province largely in the European single market and customs union but mandates checks on goods coming from Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales.
The checks are designed to prevent a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, which was a flashpoint in the years of violence.
But the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) say by creating a de facto border in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland risks being cut adrift from the rest of the UK.
The party is refusing to join a new power-sharing government in Belfast until the protocol is scrapped or overhauled.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, who is set to be Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister after elections last week, said after meeting Coveney: “The protocol is here to stay.
“There are ways to smooth its implementation, and we are certainly up for that, but the rhetoric from the British government in the last number of days is serving only to pander to the DUP,” she said.