Boris Johnson has signalled that his plan to effectively tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol could be law by the end of the year.
The British prime minister, who is attending the G7 summit in Germany alongside EU leaders, said “the interesting thing is how little this conversation is being had, certainly here” – indicating he is not expecting a major diplomatic row over the his government’s plans.
British MPs are set to vote later on Monday on controversial new legislation to give ministers powers to override parts of the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson said the plan could be carried out “fairly rapidly”, with the proposals in law by the end of the year.
His administration has argued that the measures to remove checks on goods and animal and plant products travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland are necessary to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and peace and stability.
“What we are trying to do is fix something that I think is very important to our country, which is the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” he told reporters.
“You have got one tradition, one community, that feels that things really aren’t working in a way that they like or understand, you’ve got unnecessary barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“All we are saying is you can get rid of those whilst not in any way endangering the EU single market.”
Asked if the measures could be in place this year, he said: “Yes, I think we could do it very fast, parliament willing.”
He said it would be “even better” if we could “get some of that flexibility we need in our conversations with Maros Sefcovic”, the European Commission Vice-President,
He added: “We remain optimistic.”
Unionist opposition to the imposition of checks has seen the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refuse to return to the powersharing Executive, leaving the region without a functioning government.
The UK has claimed its unilateral approach is the only option left to resolve the issues “baked in” to the protocol if the EU maintains its refusal fundamentally to rewrite the terms of the deal.
But the move has sparked a fierce backlash from the bloc, with fresh legal action launched against Britain last week.
Mr Sefcovic indicated that further measures could follow if the UK presses ahead with the Bill.
The dispute could ultimately lead to a trade war, with tariffs or even the suspension of the entire Brexit deal between the UK and EU.
As the Bill returns to the UK parliament for its second reading on Monday, MPs will debate its main principles and decide whether it can proceed for further consideration.
British foreign secretary Liz Truss will tell the Commons the legislation is a basis for a durable and sustainable solution that protects the Good Friday Agreement, avoids a hard border, safeguards the EU single market and ensures the integrity of the UK.
However, she is likely to be met with a backlash from those who oppose the move.
NI Protocol Bill returns for 2nd reading today.
It will fix problems the Protocol has created in Northern Ireland & uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Our preference remains a negotiated outcome, but EU continues to rule out change to Protocol👇https://t.co/zF53dBfirx
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) June 27, 2022
Ms Truss tweeted on Monday morning that the legislation will “fix the problems” that the post-Brexit arrangements in the region have caused.
“It will fix problems the Protocol has created in Northern Ireland & uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
“Our preference remains a negotiated outcome, but EU continues to rule out change to Protocol.”
UK Labour leader Keir Starmer has said his party would axe the proposed laws if it was in power, and confirmed Labour will vote against the legislation at Westminster.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane branded the British government’s plans “shameful” and said they will mean “more instability” for the region.
He told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “It’s very interesting that we are watching a sovereign parliament debating whether to continue a breach of international law or not.
“As I’ve said, and I think as many others have said, on numerous occasions, the introduction of this Bill is shameful. It provides nothing but more instability, especially for people here, especially for our industries and sectors here.
“So the British government seem to be tone deaf to the majority of the wishes of people here in continuing to push ahead with this legislation.”