The UK will on Wednesday put itself on a collision course with Brussels by unveiling a new set of demands that would radically overhaul post-Brexit trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In a move that officials called a “wholesale change of approach”, Lord David Frost, Cabinet Office minister, will outline a strategy that seeks to eliminate most of the checks on the Irish Sea trade border that came into force in January.
And in a warning that Britain could suspend the Northern Ireland protocol in its Brexit deal with the EU if the bloc does not give way, Frost will claim the UK is already within its rights to activate the Article 16 override clause in the agreement.
Boris Johnson on Tuesday discussed the UK strategy with Micheál Martin, his Irish counterpart — including proposals that would transform the way that the protocol currently operates.
“Johnson said that all GB-made goods should be able to go into Northern Ireland without checks,” said one EU official.
The new UK position is likely to infuriate Brussels. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol agreed by Johnson in 2019 to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, all goods shipped from Great Britain to the region must follow the EU’s rules for customs and agrifood products.
Frost has described the arrangements as “unsustainable”, telling MPs this week it was necessary to “hugely reduce or eliminate barriers” created by the protocol, which he said were deterring many Great Britain-based businesses from trading with Northern Ireland.
The Irish Sea border has riled Conservative Brexiters and Northern Ireland’s pro-Britain unionist politicians, who have described it is an affront to UK sovereignty since it leaves the region in the regulatory orbit of a foreign power.
Frost’s proposals are expected to include an “honesty box” approach, where companies that said their goods were destined only for sale and use in Northern Ireland should be exempted from checks on the Irish Sea border.
Britain also wants Brussels to agree to a dual-standards regime that would allow goods that conform to UK rules to circulate freely in Northern Ireland alongside EU-compliant products, so long as they were labelled as only for use in the region, according to people with knowledge of the proposals.
Another strand of the proposals is expected to seek to remove any role for the European Commission or the European Court of Justice in the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The UK is also expected to argue the threshold to trigger the protocol’s Article 16 override mechanism has already been reached because of the impact on trade.
The government will not act immediately by triggering the mechanism, but reserve its right to do so, said the people familiar with the proposals.
Frost’s proposals would appear to directly contradict the EU’s insistence to the UK that the bloc would not “undo the core of the [Northern Ireland] protocol”.
Johnson on Tuesday told Martin that “the way the protocol is operating is causing significant disruption for the people in Northern Ireland”.
Downing Street said after the call between the two leaders that the UK would protect the Good Friday Agreement “in all its dimensions” — a reference to the need to command the consent of both unionist and nationalist communities.
The UK prime minister “said the EU must show pragmatism and solutions needed to be found to address the serious challenges that have arisen with the protocol”, added Downing Street.
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Frost will brief the British parliament on Wednesday on the new UK strategy towards the protocol and on Tuesday spoke to Maros Sefcovic, commission vice-president responsible for EU relations with Britain.
“We are keen to see a constructive and consensual approach to resolve the outstanding issues with the protocol at pace, but it is clear to all that a wholesale change in approach is required to do that,” said one UK official.
Frost’s paper will set the scene for another round of highly charged talks with the EU ahead of a new series of deadlines on trading arrangements at the end of September.
At that point so called grace periods — temporary waivers on paperwork to smooth trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — will expire on a number of products, including chilled meats.