Brexit Minister Lord Frost has said the UK wants to strike a “new balance” on Northern Ireland with the European Union as the government launches an attempt to rewrite the Protocol.
In simultaneous statements in the Commons and Lords, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Lord Frost said while there were justifications for triggering Article 16 of the Protocol, the government has decided it was not right to do so but the UK and EU must find a “new balance” moving forward.
Unveiling the UK’s 28-page blueprint for an alternative, Lord Frost stopped short of ripping up the document completely with a move that would enable either the UK or EU to suspend part of the arrangements in extreme circumstances.
Responding to the comments from Lord Frost, the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the blueprint as a “first and significant step”.
Lord Frost told the House of Lords: “These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“We do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face.”
In a foreword to the document, Lord Frost and Mr Lewis said the proposals will “not dispense with many of its [Northern Ireland Protocol] concepts” but hope to create “a stronger long-term foundation to achieve shared interests”.
The situation in Northern Ireland is “unsatisfactory” to “all sides”, they said.
Lord Frost said disruption to business and the trade barriers across the Irish Sea must be addressed and negotiations with the EU “have not got to the heart of the problem” amid “strain” in the NI Executive.
“These impacts risk being felt in the fabric of our union too,” he warned.
“All dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement need to be respected, that is Northern Ireland’s integral place in our United Kingdom just as much as the North-South dimension of the Agreement.
Lord Frost cited what he described as “an ongoing febrile political climate, protests and regrettable instances of occasional disorder” as part of ongoing difficulties.
He called for a temporary “standstill” period including the suspension of all legal action by the EU, and the operation of grace periods to allow continued trade of goods such as chilled meats.
Lord Frost told peers that “we should return to a normal treaty framework similar to other international arrangements” and said the UK was “willing to explore exceptional arrangements around data sharing and cooperation”.
He said there would be penalties in legislation to deter those looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland.
He added: “The difficulties we have in operating the Northern Ireland Protocol are now the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU.”
There was still time to do a fresh deal rather than walk away by triggering Article 16, he said.
“It is now time to establish a new balance, which both the UK and the EU can invest in, to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU.”
He told the Lords the Protocol had resulted in a shortage of goods on supermarket shelves here and resulted in 200 suppliers deciding they would no longer supply to the region. “We have seen difficulties not just on the famous chilled meats issue but on medicines, on pets, on movements of live animals, on seeds, on plants and on many others,” he said.
He also said 20% of all documentary checks conducted on animal-derived products coming into the EU were being conducted in Northern Ireland, a country with a population of just 1.8 million.
“What is worse, these burdens will worsen, not improve over time, as grace periods expire,” he said.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC: "This is an important first step now what we need is a negotiation to put in place new arrangements that do respect the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.”
In response to the comments from Lord Frost, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic flatly rejected the UK's call to renegotiate elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Sefcovic said: "We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today.
"We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland.
"However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol."
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney added: "The EU has consistently said it is ready to find flexible, practical approaches to address the difficulties citizens in Northern Ireland are experiencing as regards the implementation of the protocol.
"However, any solutions must take place within the framework of the protocol and the principles that underpin it."