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Johnson’s push to scrap N. Ireland deal fuels fears of EU-UK trade war

The British prime minister is pushing to scrap a deal his government clinched with the European Union over the status of Northern Ireland following Brexit. The move is reviving a legal battle and fears of a trade war are brewing.

(CN) — The delicate and explosive issues of Brexit and peace in Northern Ireland are back on the front pages as the United Kingdom moves ahead with plans to nix portions of a trade deal it struck with the European Union.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government set the stage for a legal battle on Monday with the introduction of a bill in the House of Commons that would bring Northern Ireland more in alignment with the rest of the U.K. on trade and taxes.

Ever since a majority of U.K. voters backed Brexit in a referendum in 2016, Northern Ireland's complexities have dogged negotiations over Britain's exit from the EU. Brexit poses the risk of reviving Northern Ireland's bloody history of sectarian conflict.

The biggest challenge has been ensuring border checks are not reinstalled between Ireland, which is inside the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is now outside the EU.

To keep trade and people moving freely between Ireland and Northern Ireland, Johnson and the EU agreed to turn the Irish Sea into the border. This arrangement, known as the Northern Ireland protocol, meant goods bound for Northern Ireland undergo customs checks in Britain and must meet EU standards before being shipped across the Irish Sea.

Now, Johnson's government wants to scrap this arrangement by arguing that stability in Northern Ireland is at peril because of the protocol. Downing Street says that it can break an international treaty under a principle called the “doctrine of necessity.”

The British government wants to set up a “green lane” that would allow fewer checks for British firms selling goods to Northern Ireland and keep existing checks for goods heading to the EU via Northern Ireland.

Also, firms exporting to Northern Ireland would be allowed to choose between meeting EU or U.K. standards on regulation.

The British government also wants Northern Ireland's tax and spending policies to come into line with those of the rest of the U.K. Additionally, the U.K. says an independent arbitration body rather than the European Court of Justice should be given oversight of trade disputes.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU's chief negotiator, said the bloc will take legal action against Britain's push to override the protocol. He called it a “unilateral” violation of the Brexit deal that was “damaging to mutual trust.”

“The EU and the U.K. are partners facing the same global challenges, where upholding the rule of law is imperative,” Sefcovic said in a statement. “This relationship must, therefore, be based on the full respect of the legally binding commitments that we have made to one another.”

He said the EU will not renegotiate the Brexit deal, which he said safeguards the Good Friday peace deal, protects the EU's single market, and prevents a so-called “hard border” from being erected between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Johnson calls the changes to the protocol “relatively trivial” measures that will ease trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Fears of a trade war nevertheless are already brewing.

“The introduction of this bill means we are now teetering on the brink of a trade war with the EU and that will mean further economic pain and falls in investment,” said Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in a statement Tuesday.

Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s minister for European affairs, blasted Johnson's government.

“If you run through a traffic light, you’ll be punished, if you commit some other breach of the law, you’ll be punished,” he told LBC, a British talk radio station. “There will be consequences for Britain but we don’t want to get into that space. We want this to be worked out between the two sides for the betterment of Northern Ireland.”

There is no certainty that the bill will make it through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The bill seems certain to give rise to new feuding within Johnson's Conservative Party, which remains deeply divided over the decision to leave the EU.

Only last week, Johnson narrowly survived a Tory no-confidence vote sparked by months of scandal following revelations that Downing Street was the scene of parties in violation of coronavirus lockdown rules. Johnson's popularity has plummeted but he has vowed to hold onto power.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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