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UK backs down from Brexit protocol law threat for now

LONDON — The U.K. backed down from threats it could introduce wrecking legislation to rip up its Brexit deal covering Northern Ireland — for now.

U.K. government insiders had briefed in recent weeks that it could bring forward a bill in the queen’s speech that would allow ministers to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol agreed between the U.K. and EU but deeply controversial with Northern Ireland’s unionists.

But such a plan was not to be found in the list of bills set to be introduced during the coming session of parliament in the so-called queen’s speech, read this year by Prince Charles amid health issues for the British monarch.

Instead, the government made a veiled threat to Brussels that it could still go rogue to protect peace in Northern Ireland. 

Ministers have been negotiating with Brussels to reduce trade friction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, after the protocol drew a customs border down the Irish Sea in a bid to protect the EU’s single market and avoid a hard frontier between Northern Ireland and the neighboring Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

Unionists in Northern Ireland are now refusing to help form a government after recent elections there, and are instead pressing for changes to the protocol, which they see as driving a wedge between the region and the rest of the U.K.

The nationalist Sinn Féin party, which is supportive of the protocol, won the election, and the majority of Northern Irish voters backed pro-protocol parties. But the U.K. government insisted the arrangement needed to be renegotiated. 

“In the interests of all communities of Northern Ireland, the protocol needs to change,” ministers said in a document alongside the queen’s speech. 

The document urged EU counterparts to negotiate that change, but said the U.K. would not allow negotiations to “stand in the way of protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland.”

The wording leaves the door open to using U.K. legislation at a later stage to dis-apply parts of the protocol and replace them with a British approach if the talks with the EU do not yield a compromise London finds acceptable.

U.K. Attorney General Suella Braverman is understood to have sought external legal advice on options to break the deadlock in the talks, and U.K. officials believe a plan to legislate against the protocol would need to be justified on the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement for it to avoid a challenge in the courts.

The plan, however, does not appear to have the full backing of the British government. 

A person familiar with the discussions said Chancellor Rishi Sunak has concerns about the impact unilateral action would have over Britain’s relationship with the EU and the possibility of trade retaliation, and Housing Secretary Michael Gove would rather allow the talks with the EU to continue for a bit longer.

If the threat materializes, the European Commission is expected to remind Britain of its obligation to stick to the international commitments it signed up to when it enacted the Brexit divorce deal, and could refloat the list of retaliatory measures agreed by EU countries last fall in case the U.K. ripped apart the protocol.

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