UK Brexit Minister David Frost offers EU ‘new legal text’ on Northern Ireland

The UK’s Brexit minister has proposed a “new legal text” to replace the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, in a major speech in Portugal.

David Frost said he was sharing the document with the European Commission on Tuesday, the day before Brussels is due to unveil more details of its own proposals.

The minister’s address at the British Embassy in Lisbon follows a war of words between London and Brussels over the post-Brexit arrangements set out in the agreement, and the respective good will of each side.

Frost said the protocol had “lost consent” in Northern Ireland, and repeated that the UK government may resort to triggering Article 16 of the protocol, suspending the agreement altogether.

The protocol – part of the EU-UK divorce treaty – has brought trade disruption between Britain and Northern Ireland, infuriating British Unionists. London has postponed indefinitely new border checks due to have come into effect.

Boris Johnson’s government has made no secret of the fact that it wants the protocol changed, but the EU has ruled out renegotiating an international treaty struck only two years ago.

It was negotiated by Frost and Boris Johnson in 2019 to secure the deal that took the UK out of the EU. Though the prime minister denied it at the time, it was clear it would bring checks on goods between Britain and Northern Ireland – creating an “Irish Sea border” to avoid a hard land border with the Irish Republic.

Protocol ‘has to change’

Frost told the audience that the protocol was not working on the ground in Northern Ireland and was jeopardising the Belfast agreement – the 1998 peace accord that put an end to three decades of sectarian violence.

“It has completely lost consent in one community in Northern Ireland,” he said. “It is not doing the thing it was set up to do – protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. In fact it is doing the opposite. It has to change.”

The key feature of balance in the Belfast agreement was being “shredded”, the minister went on. The UK was being asked to apply a full boundary within the country, apply EU law, and settle disputes in EU courts.

The UK’s proposals would avoid the need for checks, allow goods to circulate, protect the EU’s single market and above all, trade between Northern Ireland and Britain, Frost said. The UK would be ready to discuss new EU proposals, but a solution would “need significant change”.

The “new legal text” being shared with the Commission would be “forward looking”. The minister argued that when the original protocol was struck in 2019, it wasn’t known whether the UK and the EU would strike a post-Brexit trade deal or not. As a result, the protocol “defaulted to excessive rigidity”.

Now that a “far-reaching” trade deal had been agreed, he said, it made sense to have a new agreement in place for Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland ‘not EU territory’

On arbitration, the question of governance was not a side issue, he said, and the current arrangements “will not work as part of a durable settlement”. The British government has recently raised objections to the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), as set out in the protocol to regulate Northern Ireland’s continued adherence to EU single market rules on goods.

“(The EU) must remember that it is this government, the UK government, that governs Northern Ireland as it does the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is not EU territory,” David Frost said.

He reiterated that the UK may invoke the protocol’s Article 16, which allows either side to suspend its implementation.

“We would not go down this road gratuitously, or with any particular pleasure. But it is our fundamental responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and that is why we cannot rest until this situation has been addressed.”

Watch David Frost’s speech in the player below:

The European Commission has let it be known it will offer special provisions to minimise the protocol’s effect, that are due to be unveiled on Wednesday.

The European Commission has let it be known it will offer special provisions to minimise the protocol’s effect, that are due to be unveiled on Wednesday.

Euronews reported last week that these include dramatically reducing the number of checks, and allowing Northern Irish consumers access to products from Britain such as chilled meats.

Without commenting on Frost’s speech, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted to say he looked forward to the Commission’s proposals on Wednesday, which “follows months of hard work, careful listening across Northern Ireland & will deliver practical solutions to make the Protocol work better. I hope U.K. Gov is serious about moving on in partnership.”

But the British government is doubling down on its stance that nothing short of a major overhaul of the protocol will be acceptable. In a speech last week to the ruling Conservative Party conference, Lord Frost accused the EU of “heavy-handed actions” that had brought a collapse in public support.

There has been massive frustration in Brussels at what is seen as the UK attempting to move the goalposts on the protocol – such as raising new issues such as the role of the European court.

Euronews Brussels Correspondent Shona Murray says that far from resolving EU-UK differences, Lord Frost’s speech is likely to have the opposite effect.

“This speech today is an illustration of how far apart both sides are. The UK is demanding a whole new protocol, otherwise it will trigger Article 16. We know the EU’s proposals don’t go to a new protocol, they are about practical measures that allow the protocol (to) work for Northern Ireland and the EU, so I think we’ve got a very big confrontation ahead,” she told Euronews Tonight.

The deal Boris Johnson struck with Brussels in October 2019 broke the long deadlock over Northern Ireland that had delayed Brexit itself. It paved the way for the divorce deal with the EU, a general election that the Conservatives won emphatically, and finally the UK’s exit from the EU in January 2020.

The prime minister’s deal — he called it “excellent” at the time — did away with his predecessor Theresa May’s ill-fated “backstop” measure, which his wing of the Conservative Party had strongly opposed, arguing it could have kept the UK in the EU for years.