UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will hold crunch talks with the vice president of the European Commission on Thursday as ministers consider whether to override parts of the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
Attorney General Suella Braverman is said to have approved the scrapping of large parts of the agreement, giving Prime Minister Boris Johnson legal cover to make the move, despite warnings from US President Joe Biden’s White House and European leaders not to single-handedly meddle with the terms.
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson said the Good Friday Agreement was more important than the Northern Ireland Protocol as he dismissed suggestions of any possible escalatory response from the European Union as “crazy”.
He said there was no need for “drama” as he doubled down on hints he could override elements of the deal.
Ms Truss is expected to tell European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in a call on Thursday morning that the dispute over Northern Ireland cannot drag on.
She had warned she would “not shy away” from taking action as she accused the EU of proposing solutions that would “take us backwards”.
According to The Times, Ms Braverman had advised that legislation to override the protocol would be legally sound because of the “disproportionate and unreasonable” way it has been enacted by the EU.
She has submitted evidence accusing the EU of undermining the Good Friday Agreement by creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea and warned of “societal unrest” in Northern Ireland, the newspaper said.
There is said to be a rift in the Cabinet over the move, with Ms Truss, Ms Braverman and Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg reportedly in favour, while Chancellor Rishi Sunak is concerned about the impact on the economy.
There have been suggestions that unilateral action by the UK could spark a trade war against the backdrop of the invasion of Ukraine.
But Mr Johnson told BBC News on Wednesday: “Let’s face it, we’re talking about, really, in the scheme of things, a very, very small part of the whole European economy and I think 0.4 per cent of the value of the whole of the EU economy in Northern Ireland.
“It is crazy. I didn’t think there’s any need for drama. This is something that just needs to be fixed.”
Speaking to ITV’s Peston programme, Mr Rees-Mogg said the UK would not involve itself in any trade war with the EU.
“Tit-for-tat retaliation of that kind is the economics of the school ground and it would damage British consumers at a time of rising [prices],” he said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said: “No one should unilaterally cancel, break or in any way attack the settlement.”
The White House stressed the need for talks to continue to resolve the issues, with a spokesman saying: “The best path forward is a pragmatic one that requires courage, co-operation and leadership.
“We urge the parties to continue engaging in dialogue to resolve differences and bring negotiations to a successful conclusion.”
Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his call for the government to take action.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove insisted on Wednesday that Mr Sefcovic and the foreign secretary had a “good relationship” and added: “They will try to make progress tomorrow.”
Officials working for Ms Truss are drawing up draft legislation to unilaterally remove the need for checks on all goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland.
Reports suggest Ms Truss is poised to take further action in the coming weeks if negotiations with the EU continue to stall.
The proposed law would allow businesses in Northern Ireland to disregard EU rules and regulations and remove the power of the European Court of Justice to rule on issues relating to the region.
Crucially, it would in parts override the protocol agreed to by Mr Johnson in 2019 and mean the UK had breached its obligations under the Brexit agreement.
But it has been argued that the protocol will not be completely overridden, with measures being considered to ease issues on the ground in Northern Ireland.