The dispute over Brexit rules for Northern Ireland threatens to paralyze the British province politically. London no longer wants to stick to the rules negotiated with Brussels – and is now getting serious.

The British government wants to use a new law to partially overturn the special Brexit rules for Northern Ireland.

Foreign Minister Liz Truss announced a bill in the London House of Commons on Tuesday that is intended to remove the new trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that have arisen since Brexit. London is thus detaching itself from the regulations for Northern Ireland negotiated with Brussels, which are legally stipulated in the Brexit Agreement. Brussels reacted with outrage to the announcement from London.

Goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland have had to be checked on the Irish Sea since the EU left, according to the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the Brexit deal. This regulation is intended to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the EU state of Ireland, which could fuel tensions in the former civil war region again. However, supporters of close ties between Northern Ireland and the UK – also known as Unionists – fear this will result in alienation and decoupling.

offensive in the coming weeks

So far, the conservative government’s proposed law is just an announcement, and it has not yet been launched in concrete terms. That should happen in the coming weeks, Truss said.

With the offensive, London is reacting to the displeasure of the mostly Protestant Loyalists in Northern Ireland. The largest unionist party, the DUP, is currently blocking the formation of a unity government with the catholic-nationalist Sinn Fein party, which emerged as the strongest party in last week’s general election in Northern Ireland. There is a risk of a political blockade for months. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed Truss’ announcement as a welcome, albeit overdue, step that needs to be followed by action.

Truss promised the planned changes to the protocol would cut red tape and ensure that people in Northern Ireland would have the same opportunities as all citizens of Britain. For example, companies should be able to choose under a newly designed framework whether they want to commit to British or EU standards.

Long-standing dispute

The dispute between London and Brussels over the special rules for Northern Ireland has been smoldering for a long time. Truss and EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic have recently met regularly for talks – but without any significant success. In the direction of Brussels, the Brit now assured that one was still willing to talk and would prefer a negotiation result to unilateral action. But: “We can’t afford to wait any longer.” However, the procedure is in accordance with international law and will not harm the EU in any way.

However, sharp criticism came straight away from Brussels: Vice-Commissioner Sefcovic wrote on Twitter that unilateral actions were “unacceptable” and that he had great concerns. The EU will have to react with all the measures at its disposal if London actually introduces the law, it said. There is also an end to the entire Brexit treaty in the room. The result could be a trade war between Brussels and London.

The trade policy spokeswoman for the Greens/EFA group, Anna Cavazzini, spoke of an unprecedented low point in the long-term escalation by the British government. “Should such a law really come into force, it is a clear breach of international law.” The EU should not be driven by this policy of threats, which is exactly what Johnson intends to do with the provocation that has now been announced.