Brexit negotiations ‘firmly in the hands of the EU’ until Protocol is resolved

Steve Baker - Liam McBurney/PA

Steve Baker – Liam McBurney/PA

On Wednesday, Britain warned Brussels that it must compromise on the Protocol to end the Brexit stand-off in Belfast and that the solution “lies firmly in the hands of the EU”.

Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland Minister, said the DUP would maintain its boycott of Stormont until the issue of the Irish Sea border was resolved.

“Everyone needs to understand that we will be challenged to deliver a devolved government until the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol is resolved,” he said, speaking in the Commons.

“That, I am afraid, puts things firmly in the hands of the European Union. Until it is willing to negotiate on the basis of regard for the legitimate interests of Unionism we will not be able to satisfy the DUP or many Conservative MPs that we have made progress.”

The DUP collapsed Stormont in February and refused to return to power-sharing after elections in May that made Sinn Fein Northern Ireland’s biggest party for the first time.

Fresh Northern Ireland Assembly elections

On Friday, a six-month deadline for the restoration of Stormont was missed.

The UK had warned it would trigger fresh elections but has not yet set a date for the second vote in less than seven months.

The delay has led to speculation the Government could use legislation to postpone the vote within the 12 weeks the law affords for naming election day.

Mr Baker said that the Government would call fresh Northern Ireland Assembly elections “soon”.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, met with Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, in Belfast on Wednesday. Dublin did not think new elections would be helpful, he said.

Simon Coveney - Niall Carson/PA

Simon Coveney – Niall Carson/PA

The DUP is almost certain to remain the largest unionist party, which means it could maintain its boycott of power sharing regardless of the vote.

Mr Coveney said it would be possible to strike a Protocol deal by the end of the year with “political will” from both sides.

Sunak does not have Truss or Johnson ‘baggage’

Talks over the Protocol, and cutting border checks on British goods, have rebooted but are still at an early, technical stage.

Rishi Sunak does not have Liz Truss or Boris Johnson’s “baggage” with Brussels which could help bring a deal, the UK’s last commissioner told peers on Wednesday.

But Sir Julian King warned EU officials were wary that Mr Sunak would sacrifice a Protocol deal for “party management” – and to keep rebellious MPs under control.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that Boris Johnson had something of a trust deficit in Brussels,” said Sir Julian, who was the UK’s commissioner in Brussels when Brexit happened.

Some in the EU had argued that negotiations should be “frozen” until the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was withdrawn by Britain, he said.

The Bill hands ministers the power to unilaterally tear up parts of the Protocol, which Brussels says would break international law.

The UK has said it will use it if a negotiated solution cannot be reached.

Sir Julian warned that if the UK was to actually implement the Bill, the EU response would be “significant” and probably include trade tariffs on UK goods.