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EU Cautiously Welcomes UK Bid To Dial Down Northern Ireland Protocol Rhetoric

5 min read

An apparent attempt by Boris Johnson to take the heat out of the Northern Ireland Protocol debate has been cautiously welcomed on the EU side after the Prime Minister met with the Northern Irish party leaders on Monday.

A Brussels source told PoliticsHome that a renewed Downing Street effort to create a more "non-aggressive, unconfrontational" atmosphere was a positive step after a diplomatic flare-up early last week.

A row erupted when Foreign Secretary Lizz Truss' plan to override the post-Brexit treaty through legislation was leaked to The Times. She then raised eyebrows with a strongly-worded statement, in which she said the EU's proposals for amending the Northern Ireland Protocol would in some cases make things worse for businesses sending goods the Irish Sea.

But today a Brussels source said the European Union had since detected an attempt by the UK to cool the rhetoric over the weekend, and that the conciliatory tone of Johnson's opinion piece about Northern Ireland in The Belfast Telegraph this morning had been noticed. However, the bloc remains strongly opposed to any UK move to change the Northern Ireland Protocol unilaterally.

Brussels is also keen to avoid returning to "war by op ed" — a reference to previous points in Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations where the two sides have engaged in heated exchanges of words via the media.

Speaking in Northern Ireland this afternoon, Johnson said he'd "love" to find a solution for the protocol "in a consensual way with our friends and partners", adding that he wants to fix the treaty, not scrap it altogether.

However, he said the UK needed the "insurance" of a legislation, which Truss is set to set out on Tuesday.

The Prime Minister's spokesperson this morning insisted that the government had "always" tried to approach protocol talks with its EU counterparts "in a calm manner". 

"That's always been the approach that we've taken when having negotiations with the EU or individual countries," they said.

They insisted that Johnson and Truss were united in this approach and rejected reports that the prime minister was trying to bring calm to counter antagonism stirred up by the foreign secretary.

"That's a view shared by both the prime minister and the foreign secretary," they said.

Downing Street figures blamed Truss' actions for the rise in tensions with Brussels, according to a report in The Times this weekend. Sources told the paper they believed she deserved the nickname given to her by Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister's former chief adviser: human hand grenade.

A senior Tory MP claimed that Johnson "had taken the baton back" from Truss after last week's diplomatic row, and accused the foreign secretary of being combative towards the EU in order to improve her chances of being the next leader of the Tory party.

"When she puts her head on the pillow she thinks 'I voted Remain' so she believes she has to be true Brexit for the Brexiters. She's always talking to the ERG [European Research Group of backbench Conservative MPs]," they told PoliticsHome.

A government source last week levelled the same accusation at Truss, telling PoliticsHome that her actions looked like "leadership feather fluttering".

Julian Smith, the former Northern Ireland secretary, last week told PoliticsHome's podcast The Rundown that some Westminster figures were using Northern Ireland for "other agendas" and their own "priorities", but didn't name names.

The foreign secretary today met with numerous Conservative MPs to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol, ahead of publishing the government's plan tomorrow, PoliticsHome understands.

The Prime Minister is today in Belfast where he is meeting with the leaders of Northern Ireland's main political parties following the 5 May Assembly election.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which came second, is refusing to form a government due to their opposition to the protocol. Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who leads the DUP, has said he will not take his party into the Executive with Sinn Fein, which was returned as the largest party, until it feels the protocol has been sufficiently dealt with by the UK government.

Speaking after his meeting with Johnson, Donaldson warned that wanted to see "decisive action", not just the tabling of legislation, before he agrees to take the DUP into government with Sinn Fein.

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein's President, said the party's meeting with Johnson today had been "tough" and accused the Prime Minister of prioritising "placating" the DUP rather than restoring Northern Ireland's power sharing government.

"I'm sorry to report that we've had no straight answers really from the British Prime Minister except a confirmation of what we already knew, which is that in fact this impasse is entirely co ordinated between themselves and the DUP, and if the DUP are acting shamefully in holding back government, well then the British Government is behaving even more shamefully," she said.

Writing for The Belfast Telegraph, the Prime Minister said he will have "a necessity to act" if the EU does not change its negotiating position on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

However, Johnson stressed that the government would always remain open to "genuine dialogue" and said it was still possible for the two sides to find "a sensible landing spot" in negotiations.

While the UK is threatening to overhaul the protocol through legislation, there is an expectation that the two sides will continue to negotiate throughout the summer, with the hope of negotiating a compromise before the deadline for Stormont to get back up-and-running expires in October.

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