Johnson threatens to use emergency powers to avoid barrier in Irish Sea

Boris Johnson has raised the stakes in a bitter dispute with Brussels over post-Brexit rules in Northern Ireland, warning he could invoke emergency measures to ensure there was no “barrier of any kind in the Irish Sea”.

Mr Johnson told MPs on Wednesday he would legislate if necessary or use emergency override powers — Article 16 in the Northern Ireland protocol, which forms part of the UK’s 2019 Brexit treaty with Brussels — to maintain the free flow of trade between Great Britain and the region.

“We do think it’s very important the protocol does not place unnecessary barriers — or barriers of any kind — down the Irish Sea,” he said during prime minister’s questions.

His comments will raise pressure on Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president, to agree to demands from London and Belfast to soften the need for checks on trade across the Irish Sea.

Mr Sefcovic will hold talks on Wednesday afternoon with Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister; Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party; and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister.

Vehicles leave the port of Larne, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, after arriving from Scotland.  Authorities in Northern Ireland have suspended post-Brexit border checks on animal products and withdrawn workers after threats against border staff. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)© ASSOCIATED PRESS Vehicles leave the port of Larne, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, after arriving from Scotland. Authorities in Northern Ireland have suspended post-Brexit border checks on animal products and withdrawn workers after threats against border staff. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Ahead of the meeting Mr Gove wrote to Mr Sefcovic warning that the European Commission’s handling of the Northern Ireland issue in recent days had seriously raised tensions in the region.

Mr Gove said he wanted “grace periods” to allow the free flow of trade in certain goods across the Irish Sea to be extended until January 2023, pending permanent solutions. The extra time would cover supermarkets and their suppliers, chilled meat products, parcels and medicines.

With some of the grace periods due to expire on April 1, the extensions would allow businesses that regularly send goods from Great Britain to the region much more time to adjust to the arrangements, which came into force at the start of last month.

The Northern Ireland protocol was a key part of Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal. To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland it left Northern Ireland under EU customs rules and part of the single market for goods.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JANUARY 30: A woman walks past freshly painted graffiti in the loyalist Sandy row area which states No Irish sea border under an EU Exit billboard on January 30, 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has said it has been monitoring growing unionist discontent regarding the implementation of a so called Irish sea border and comes as the EU reversed its decision to invoke Article 16 of the Brexit withdrawal agreement to control the export of coronavirus vaccines from the EU into NI. Northern Ireland's first minister and leader of the main unionist party, the DUP, Arlene Foster said the move to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol was an act of hostility. The EU countries are experiencing a huge shortfall in vaccines and there was concern the Irish border could be used as a backdoor for supplies entering the UK. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)© 2021 Getty Images BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – JANUARY 30: A woman walks past freshly painted graffiti in the loyalist Sandy row area which states No Irish sea border under an EU Exit billboard on January 30, 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has said it has been monitoring growing unionist discontent regarding the implementation of a so called Irish sea border and comes as the EU reversed its decision to invoke Article 16 of the Brexit withdrawal agreement to control the export of coronavirus vaccines from the EU into NI. Northern Ireland’s first minister and leader of the main unionist party, the DUP, Arlene Foster said the move to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol was an act of hostility. The EU countries are experiencing a huge shortfall in vaccines and there was concern the Irish border could be used as a backdoor for supplies entering the UK. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

But Mr Johnson’s insistence that the UK should leave the bloc’s customs union and single market meant that new checks were needed on goods moving from Great Britain to the region.

Mr Sefcovic is under considerable pressure after the commission last week briefly invoked the Article 16 override mechanism to allow Brussels to block the shipment of vaccines from the EU into Northern Ireland.

The threat of border controls on the island of Ireland infuriated both communities in Northern Ireland. Mr Gove told Mr Sefcovic in his letter “the reaction was even more negative than I expected”.

LONDON - UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 27: UK Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street in London, England on January 27 2021. (Photo by Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)© 2021 Anadolu Agency LONDON – UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 27: UK Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street in London, England on January 27 2021. (Photo by Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Nationalists bemoaned the fact that Brussels wanted to reimpose a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, while pro-UK unionists urged Mr Johnson to use Article 16 to remove border checks for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Both the EU and UK are entitled to invoke Article 16 in the event that the Northern Ireland protocol causes “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

The EU, which swiftly dropped its proposed use of the override clause late on Friday, had claimed there would be serious societal issues if the 27-member bloc did not have sufficient supplies of Covid-19 vaccines.

Mrs Foster has argued that the same societal problems were being stirred up by excessive bureaucracy on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leaving unionists feeling cut off from another part of their own country.

Port workers at Belfast and Larne have faced intimidation, with checks on food and agriculture products suspended at both ports for a second day on Wednesday.

Mr Johnson and Mrs Foster met earlier on Wednesday. Downing Street said the prime minister promised to do “everything we could to ensure trade continues to flow effectively right across our United Kingdom”.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster talks during a television interview outside the Stormont Parliament building in Belfast, Northern Ireland, December 30, 2020. Picture taken December 30, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble© Thomson Reuters Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster talks during a television interview outside the Stormont Parliament building in Belfast, Northern Ireland, December 30, 2020. Picture taken December 30, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The DUP, which wants “permanent solutions developed” to lift barriers to trade, said the prime minister’s timetable for resolving the issues was the end of March. “Sticking plaster solutions and grace periods that kick the can down the road will not solve these problems.”

The Irish government, meanwhile, signalled it was open to “flexibility” in implementing the protocol and the extension of grace periods.

But Simon Coveney, Irish foreign minister, dismissed a fresh push by the DUP to scrap the protocol outright. “Those who are calling for doing away with the protocol entirely, I think, are completely unrealistic. That is not going to happen,” Mr Coveney said.

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