Taoiseach says UK protocol plans are ‘anti-business and anti-industry’
The Taoiseach has described the legislation on the Northern Ireland Protocol published by the British government yesterday, as “anti-business and anti-industry”.
Speaking on his way into Cabinet this morning, Micheál Martin said the action by the UK represented a “fundamental breach of trust”.
He said he did not believe that the legislation was well thought out and does not represent the realities facing Northern Ireland businesses.
Mr Martin said that NI businesses were performing well under the protocol and called on the UK to resume negotiations.
However, he warned that there was an issue around trust, with “a lot” of EU leaders now concerned that the UK government cannot be relied upon to uphold any future agreements.
The Taoiseach said that the UK’s action “makes for very difficult times ahead”.
He said nobody wants “acrimony or real difficulty”, but yesterday’s development made it more difficult to avoid such a situation.
The Taoiseach said that the proposed legislation would have a “destabilising” effect on politics in Northern Ireland and said he does not accept that the Northern Ireland Protocol was undermining the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Martin also told reporters that people in Northern Ireland were being denied democracy while Stormont was not sitting, adding that he believed that NI voters were the “real losers” following yesterday’s developments.
Mr Martin said that domestic politics in London was a factor in the UK’s decision and that the EU had shown flexibility and a willingness to engage, and this was demonstrated in relation to medicines issues.
The Taoiseach did not speak with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of yesterday’s publication and has not spoken to him since either.
Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the controversial plans to override the protocol were a “new low” for British-Irish relations in the past 25 years.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Minister Coveney said the bill is “not consistent with international law and the British government’s obligations under international law and I think that will be shown in time.
“But more concerningly this, I think, is really a new low in British-Irish relations, certainly, I think in the last 25 years or so.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has insisted that the UK is acting in a “reasonable way”.
Speaking on Sky News, she said: “We cannot allow the situation to drift and we cannot allow the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to be further undermined. That’s why the government’s determined to act and we’re doing so in a reasonable way.”
Ms Truss later told the BBC that they had to take action because of the political situation at Stormont.
She said: “We haven’t seen an Executive formed since February, we have seen east-west trade diminished, trade diverted to north-south. We’ve also seen the people of Northern Ireland not able to benefit from tax breaks.
“These are all issues that we need to sort out. Our preference is to sort them out with the EU, but as yet the EU are not agreeing to change the text of the protocol.”
Meanwhile, senior EU figures have threatened a strong response to the UK’s legislation.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz yesterday hinted at trade measures against the UK, while the EU’s chief negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, said the European Commission could resume legal action against London.
Mr Šefčovič will brief members of the European Parliament later today.
Last night, one senior EU figure after another denounced the UK bill that would tear up the protocol.
Mr Scholz said the EU had its entire toolbox at its disposal, in other words, the EU could take retaliatory trade measures.
Senior Italian, Dutch and Austrian ministers all accused the UK of threatening to break international law.
The European Commission waited until the bill was laid before the House of Commons before responding.
Mr Šefčovič said the EU would not renegotiate the protocol.
It is understood the European Commission could unfreeze legal action against the UK that was launched in March of last year, but then suspended in July to give time and space to negotiations on implementing the Protocol.
That could happen as soon as tomorrow and the commission could add new infringement proceedings as well.
This could end up with the UK being taken to the European Court of Justice, but Mr Šefčovič also made it clear that trade measures were an option against the UK.
The commission will further outline its response tomorrow, while Mr Šefčovič will today meet the UK Contact Group of MEPs in the European Parliament.
While the EU was anticipating a bill that would disapply parts of the protocol, one diplomat said member states were stunned by the scope of the legislation.
Business leaders sound note of caution
Meanwhile, business leaders in the UK have urged British Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to enter a “damaging trade war” with the EU.
Mr Johnson insisted the bill contained only minor, bureaucratic changes, while Downing Street said it was an “insurance mechanism” in case a negotiated agreement with the EU could not be found.
However, Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, said business needed both sides to urgently get round the negotiating table to agree a “pragmatic” settlement.
“We recognise that the protocol in the current state does need to be changed,” he said.
“But the way to do this is not to start a trade war with the EU in the middle of a financial crisis which would be damaging for both British and EU businesses alike and put further strain on already stretched supply chains.”
Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the government’s action risked “significant harm” to businesses across the UK.
“Getting Brexit done was at least meant to deliver certainty to businesses after years of waiting for clarity on the future of the UK’s trade relations with the European Union,” he said.
“The introduction of this bill means we are now teetering on the brink of a trade war with the EU and that will mean further economic pain and falls in investment.”
Despite the warnings, any confrontation is likely to be some way off.
The British government faces significant opposition to its plans in the House of Lords and it is likely to be some months before the legislation becomes law.