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The British government debates the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Northern Ireland Protocol is an agreement that controls how goods move back and forth over the border between Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in the European Union. It was central to the Brexit deal when the U.K. pulled out of the EU. And critics say Prime Minister Boris Johnson's proposal to scrap it now could start a trade war. Reporter Willem Marx is in London. So why is Boris Johnson's government trying to upend this trade protocol?

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Well, A., there's no single answer to that question, you might imagine. But the legislation is designed in such a way that it gives British authorities the legal cover, at least under U.K. domestic law, to essentially ignore parts of the Brexit agreement that it doesn't like. For months, Johnson's government has complained that the way the European Union has been implementing the 2019 agreement creates trade obstacles between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. - so that's England, Wales and Scotland - by, for instance, conducting checks on certain goods that are headed there. This new legislation seeks to ensure that tax breaks are available to businesses in Northern Ireland and that a European court can no longer rule on trade disputes there.

MARTINEZ: But, Willem, why now in particular?

MARX: Well, aspects of that post-Brexit deal, like those checks on goods I just mentioned, have made a significant group of people in Northern Ireland unhappy, since they want Northern Ireland to remain an integral part of the U.K. These unionists, as they're called, say those trading checks ultimately overseen by the EU threaten that integrity. And so consequently, the leaders of the largest unionist political party have essentially been boycotting the local government executive for the past several weeks. That, in turn, has placed pressure on a 1998 Northern Ireland peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement. And that's one major reason the U.K. government says it needs to override parts of that post-Brexit protocol that it signed up to.

MARTINEZ: How are leaders in the European Union reacting to this?

MARX: Well, as I said, the U.K. signed up to this deal at the time. It campaigned on the - Boris Johnson on the deal during the last general election. They've subsequently sought to delay implementation of some elements of the deal for quite a while, while they've continued negotiations with the European Union over long-term solutions. But the EU has repeatedly said the Northern Ireland Protocol itself cannot be renegotiated. So as you might imagine, the Irish prime minister, Micheal Martin, said the U.K. was reneging on an international treaty and that this was a new low point. This European Commission said it was, quote, "not acceptable." Germany's Foreign Minister described it as a, quote, "breach of trust." It's worth noting even Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged his British counterpart, Foreign Minister Liz Truss, to continue with good-faith negotiations with the EU to try and find common ground that preserves that 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

MARTINEZ: So we are on the verge of a trade war here?

MARX: Well, it kind of depends on whether this proposed legislation gets watered down in the weeks ahead, as the British Parliament may choose to try and do. Some critics say Johnson's not only introduced this hard-line plan for greater leverage during those talks with the EU or perhaps to win over critics inside his own Conservative Party. You might remember after a recent no-confidence vote that was here, it showed he had less than rock-solid internal support in his party. And on the European side, they say they're weighing their options. But it's fair to say that a trade war's not entirely unrealistic. The possibility tariffs could be imposed on British exports or restrictions placed on British firms doing business in the EU cannot be ruled out.

MARTINEZ: Willem Marx, reporting for us from London. Willem, thanks a lot.

MARX: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx