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LONDON — Liz Truss is poised to make her first big move as U.K. prime minister in the Brexit row over Northern Ireland. It looks likely to be a call for more of the same.
Despite punchy rhetoric on the campaign trail about taking tougher action against Brussels, the PM is ultimately expected to push for existing “grace periods” — which waive a host of post-Brexit checks at Northern Ireland’s ports — to continue.
The call will come in a letter to the European Commission in the coming days, as the U.K. responds to legal action by the bloc.
Such a move would mark a step back from more aggressive action which might have intensified the rift between the two sides as the U.K. mourns Queen Elizabeth II. That doesn’t mean, however, that it will receive an enthusiastic public welcome from the European Union. A longer-term fix to the dispute remains elusive.
“What we’ve told them informally is that the better thing [that] can happen is for us not to respond to such a letter,” an EU official familiar with the discussions said. “The Commission can’t simply reply saying ‘oh, very well, carry on.’”
London and Brussels have long been at loggerheads over the Northern Ireland protocol, a painstakingly negotiated part of the Brexit divorce deal. The U.K. argues that the arrangement, intended to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, is overly bureaucratic and stoking anger among Northern Ireland’s unionists. Brussels counters that the U.K. willingly signed up to the deal, and pitches it as the only realistic way to preserve the integrity of its single market after Brexit.
The U.K. has so far managed to avoid implementing most of the checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland demanded by the protocol by repeatedly extending so-called grace periods ahead of their full introduction, with the reluctant acquiescence of the Commission.
The U.K.’s push for a further extension of the grace periods is expected to come in its formal response to legal proceedings lodged by the Commission back in June, in an attack on London’s failure to fully implement the agreement. Some of those proceedings require a formal response by Thursday; others by September 22.
A U.K. official said Britain has now finalized its response, but that delivery of the letter might be delayed because formal government business has been paused during the mourning period for the queen.
The EU official confirmed the U.K. has not yet requested any extension of Thursday’s deadline — but that the Commission is likely to grant one if London does ask, given the extraordinary circumstances.
Article 16 latest
Over the summer, Truss and her team had flirted with a much more drastic response — triggering Article 16 of the protocol, the emergency clause allowing either side to temporarily suspend parts of the agreement. The U.K. argued it might need to use Article 16 because the EU’s ongoing legal action could wipe out legal grounds for the current grace periods continuing.
The new letter stating that Britain instead plans to maintain the existing grace periods is likely to be presented to Brussels as a British alternative to invoking Article 16.
The same EU official said it would be “unthinkable” for the Commission to openly agree to the request, because doing so would hinder its legal case.
There could be more trouble ahead, too. The EU is also likely to take a decision in the next three weeks on whether to ramp up its legal action by taking Britain to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), the final arbiter in disputes concerning the Brexit agreements, the EU official added — unless the U.K. withdraws its controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, or “unless there is a political intervention” by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
A first phone call between von der Leyen and Liz Truss, the new British prime minister, is yet to take place. Von der Leyen is thought to be more “conciliatory” than Commission Vice President and Brexit point-man Maroš Šefčovič, who in the past has privately argued against extending the grace periods indefinitely, the EU official said.
“We will keep the door open and the hand extended,” the official added. “We will continue speaking with them [the U.K. government] to try to find solutions. If we reached solutions, we would withdraw the proceedings, and they would withdraw the bill. I believe it is feasible.”
On Monday, Šefčovič urged Truss to resume political talks on the protocol — which were paused at the end of February — and drop the bill.
He told the Financial Times that the EU’s own ideas for reforming the protocol, first set out last October, would ultimately mean checks on just “a couple of lorries a day.”
Key to achieving such a scenario would be the granting of access to EU officials of comprehensive, real-time data from U.K. authorities on shipments from Great Britain to Northern Ireland — an area where there has been slow progress over the past year, but on which some officials believe a solution could be found relatively soon.
Šefčovič said he was “encouraged” by Truss’ comments in the House of Commons Wednesday, when she told lawmakers she wants a “negotiated solution” to the row.
Privately, however, EU officials are a lot more pessimistic, and not just because Truss also warned in her first Commons debate that an agreed solution must “deliver all the things” the U.K. has demanded before.
Either way, the window for further talks is fast closing.
The U.K. government has set October 28 as the deadline for a new Northern Ireland Executive to be formed. The Democratic Unionist Party, deeply opposed to the protocol, continues to block the formation of a devolved executive, and failure to resume power-sharing in Northern Ireland would trigger another election — kicking the prospect of protocol talks further into the long grass.
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