Wed. May 18th, 2022

Boris Johnson is unlikely to trigger Article 16 proceedings against the EU over the controversial Northern Ireland protocol ahead of May’s Stormont elections due to the war in Ukraine.

The UK prime minister has threatened to activate the override mechanism and suspend part of the UK-EU agreement covering post-Brexit trade with the region due to concerns that its implementation is too onerous and disruptive to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Negotiations between UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic to agree a compromise over border arrangements for Northern Ireland have continued for months with little sign of any breakthrough. The purdah period for May’s elections begins at the end of March.

One government insider said the international situation had reshaped thinking on the protocol. “Before the Ukraine war, it was more likely that we could have triggered Article 16 before purdah kicks in. But now it’s looking pretty uncertain. ”

They added: “the whole of government is entirely focused on the Ukraine war, there’s very little ministerial capacity for anything else.”

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has consistently warned ministers about the economic consequences of triggering Article 16, including the possibility of a trade war with the EU and the likely continuation of US tariffs on British metals exports, according to government insiders.

But some Conservative MPs believed Johnson was nevertheless intent on triggering Article 16 as part of a deal with Tory rightwingers to prop up his leadership during the “partygate” scandal, in which he is being investigated for breaking coronavirus restrictions.

Last month Johnson told MPs: “If our friends do not show the requisite common sense then of course we will trigger Article 16.”

Some Tory MPs briefed on Johnson’s thinking believed the prime minister would trigger the mechanism in a “Coke-lite” manner, initially suspending the protocol only in a few limited areas, such as food items, as they are “very difficult for the EU to argue against without looking unreasonable. ”

Officials involved in the plans said there was “a lot of concern” in Whitehall about Northern Ireland’s Jewish community and the impact the protocol was having on access to kosher products. “They are literally struggling to practice their faith due to the protocol and we have to address that,” one official said.

Senior Conservatives are also concerned that Northern Ireland’s unionist parties could suffer in May’s elections due to the unpopularity of the protocol among their voters. If the dispute is not resolved prior to the election purdah, it may toughen feelings against the agreement, particularly on the part of the Democratic Unionist party and its leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson,

“Resolving the protocol becomes much more difficult after May’s elections because Jeffrey [Donaldson] may refuse to go back into Stormont if it is not ripped up entirely. That point has been made to the EU, ”said one minister.

Others in government said that triggering Article 16 may still be on the table. “If necessary, we would do it in purdah if the situation requires – it’s not ideal but could still happen,” one senior official said.

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