inisters stepped back from the brink of an all out Brexit trade war with the European Union on Tuesday as the UK prepared to set out its intention to introduce new laws which could override the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had been expected to table draft legislation which could have set the clock ticking on Britain unilaterally implementing new trading arrangements for the region.
Instead she was set to announce the UK’s plan to bring forward legislation before the summer, taking the heat out of a row with Brussels and paving the way for a fresh round of negotiations on trade checks which have left Northern Ireland’s government in paralysis.
Speaking ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the Protocol – part of the 2019 Brexit Treaty which established a customs and regulatory border on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – “isn’t sustainable”.
He added: “We have got to ensure that products moving within the UK can do so freely and ensure that goods that are moving into the EU via Ireland are properly dealt with, but not products that are staying within the UK.”
Government sources said Ms Truss would be setting out alternative plans to regulate the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control and governance. Introducing green and red lanes to reduce the need for checks on goods is among the ideas likely to be proposed by the UK.
Despite Boris Johnson’s visit to Belfast to meet with the region’s political leaders yesterday, Northern Ireland’s Executive is currently unable to function with the Democratic Unionist Party blocking the appointment of a new speaker to the Stormont Assembly until changes are made to the Protocol.
Marks & Spencer chairman and former Tory MP Archie Norman described the Protocol as “very, very onerous” and estimated it was costing the retailer “about £30 million”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said it was “very, very tough” to meet current requirements.
“At the moment, wagons arriving in the Republic of Ireland have to carry 700 pages of documentation. It takes about eight hours to prepare the documentation. Some of the descriptors, particularly of animal products, have to be in Latin. It has to be in a certain typeface. We employ 13 vets in Motherwell to prepare it all…”
Mr Norman, who also said the protocol costs “30% more driver time”, claimed the EU is “looking for us to impose comparable controls for Northern Ireland” and warned this would stop the movement of goods altogether in some instances.
“The EU are looking for us to impose comparable controls for Northern Ireland and were that to happen, it would mean that quite a lot of product from the UK simply wouldn’t get to Northern Ireland and what does go there would be very very costly.
“What the British government is proposing at the moment is a triumph of common sense over rules based mentality and will make sure at a time of inflation that the Northern Irish people can get the fresh food they are used to and are entitled to.”
Following a call with Ms Truss last night European Commission vice-president, Maros Sefcovic, tweeted: “With political will, practical issues arising from the implementation of the protocol in Northern Ireland can be resolved.”