UK can break NI protocol without breaking international law, insists Kwasi Kwarteng

The UK can break the Northern Ireland Protocol without breaking international law, a cabinet minister has insisted.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the government was prepared to scrap the post-Brexit trade deal, known as invoking Article 16, to ensure “political stability” in Northern Ireland.

The Protocol, a key part of the withdrawal treaty signed between the United Kingdom and the European Union after Brexit, has led to checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.

This has angered the Democratic Unionist Party, which has said it will not enter a power-sharing executive at Stormont in Sinn Fein unless the Protocol is radically redesigned.

Boris Johnson will fly to Belfast on Monday in a bid to broker a deal between the political parties to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back on track.

Appearing on Sky News this morning, Kwarteng made it clear that the government was prepared to escalate tensions with Brussels by scrapping the Protocol.

Asked if ministers were prepared to do so unilaterally, Kwarteng said: “Absolutely right. Throughout this whole debate, even before the Protocol and the [withdrawal] treaty, we have had a number of people in this country whose assumption has been that the British government is always wrong and the EU is always right and that is clearly too simplistic.

“We have tried to enter in good faith, we have tried to negotiate the withdrawal treaty, but we have always said, even Article 16 of the Protocol itself says, that it can be repealed unilaterally if it is shown that it is not working. And clearly, if political stability is our priority and people say they won’t share power if it doesn’t change, we have to consider very carefully how we can change it.

Pressed on whether that would violate international law, the business secretary said: “I’m not clear on this because clearly Article 16 is part of the Protocol itself, and when you read it, it clearly says that there is a possibility of changing it unilaterally. – unilaterally means that we can do it ourselves without having to come to an agreement with the EU”.

Kwarteng also rejected suggestions that unilateral action by the UK could lead to a damaging trade war, with the EU introducing tariffs that would further increase prices in stores.

“Any tariff situation would have to go to arbitrators,” he said. “It’s not something they can do haphazardly, arbitrarily. We got into a lot of trouble because we just ruled out leaving.

“Article 16 is enshrined (in the Withdrawal Agreement). It allows people to act unilaterally, and ultimately we have to be prepared to invoke it.

“I don’t think they can necessarily impose tariffs arbitrarily. I think it will take a long time for that process to work. As far as I am concerned, we absolutely have the right to invoke Article 16 and reopen or re-examine the protocol.”

Appearing on the same programme, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney accused the UK of “sabre rattling and bluff”, saying there was still a chance a negotiated settlement could be reached.

He said: “At a time when the world needs the Western world to be united, to be in concert solving problems together, this is a problem we need to solve together. The last thing Ireland wants, the last thing the EU needs, is tension with a country of the size and influence of the UK.”

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