The British government is refusing to ask ports to get ready to implement new checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland, a decision that risks inflaming tensions between London and Brussels ahead of next week’s trade talks.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, insisted businesses in Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to the market of mainland Britain. And, he said, the government had not asked any ports to prepare for new checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.
That may raise fears among European Union officials that Johnson is trying to back away from promises he made during the U.K.’s divorce from the EU to protect the integrity of the single market by ensuring goods meet the bloc’s standards if they are headed into the island of Ireland.
“We will comply with our obligations,” Slack told reporters in London on Monday.
The comments came after reports at the weekend that Johnson’s team were trying to avoid checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
The Irish border was one of the most intractable issues in Britain’s divorce negotiations with the bloc. While all sides were committed to avoiding the return of customs checks in a region once plagued by terrorism, it took months of tense negotiations to find a compromise for both sides. Reopening that argument now could put a future trade deal between the U.K. and the EU at risk.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said “there can be no backsliding” on the Northern Ireland protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement, broadcaster RTE reported on Monday. Varadkar, who is acting as caretaker premier after losing this month’s election, said the withdrawal agreement is an international treaty and he said “we expect the British government to honor that in full,” RTE said.
EU ambassadors meet on Monday to finalize the bloc’s goals for the trade negotiations. Johnson’s office said the U.K. government will publish its mandate for those talks on Thursday.
Slack signaled that regaining Britain’s political independence and freedom from the EU’s legal system will take priority over securing a trade deal by the deadline of the end of this year.
“The U.K.’s primary objective in the negotiations is to ensure we restore economic and political independence on Jan. 1, 2021,” Slack said.