EU preparing retaliation options if Britain pushes protocol bill forward

The European Union is preparing options to react if the UK government goes ahead with plans to unilaterally roll back Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements.

Member state ambassadors have called for action to be prepared if London chooses to escalate a row that has plunged close trading partners back into acrimony after months of cooperation over the war in Ukraine.

Within the European Commission, officials have prepared options for both a potential deal with London to ease the flow of goods to Northern Ireland, and alternatively how to respond if the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chooses to abandon the talks and violate the international treaty.

EU ambassadors called for a range of options to be prepared when discussing the issue this week, with one diplomat saying the approach should resemble NATO’s ‘flexible response’ doctrine which allows every hostile action to be met with a proportional reaction.

The EU is hoping for a ‘rational and sensible conversation’ on how to resolve some of the issues with the protocol, but ‘will respond if the UK resorts to unilateral action’, another EU diplomat told The Irish Times.

“The idea is a phased and graduated approach to this response,” the diplomat said.

“The EU is not going to escalate, but we are not going to sit idly by and let the UK unilaterally break an international agreement that Johnson not only signed, but demanded.”

Options include resuming legal action and seeking redress under a dispute settlement structure established under the trade deal signed with Britain in 2020. If all else fails, this allows ultimately up to the aggrieved party to retaliate by imposing customs duties on the goods.

Britain’s announcement that it intends to introduce legislation to overturn a 2019 deal has caused significant frustration in Brussels, but EU member states have stressed they will continue to take an approach united on the issue and to stand with Ireland.

‘Same page’

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen discussed the matter in a phone call with Micheál Martin on Thursday.

“The EU and Ireland are on the same page: international agreements cannot be disapplied unilaterally,” she later said in a Tweet.

“The UK must work with us to find common and workable solutions.”

It comes after French European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune had a phone call with his Irish counterpart Thomas Byrne, later saying that “in the face of further British provocations on the Northern Irish protocol, we will remain united and firm, to defend peace, stability and respect for the agreements signed”.

Officials have publicly expressed their exasperation. “Let’s all threaten each other to break international law. This creates very good partnerships,” a spokesperson for the German Embassy to the EU wrote on Twitter earlier this week.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney is due to meet British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in Turin on Friday on the sidelines of an annual session of the Council of Europe, during which the 46 member states will discuss their response to the war in Ukraine.

Ireland takes over the Council of Europe presidency on Friday for a six-month term and plans to prioritize human rights, youth and democratic engagement, and promote a welcoming and inclusive Europe .

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