UNITED STATES/ UNITED KINGDOM: Elizabeth Truss, the new Prime Minister of Britain and leader of the Conservative party, received an official call from the White House on her second day in office, warning her against “efforts to undo the Northern Ireland protocol.”
The warning emerged from the lectern in the White House briefing room, where spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre was questioned about new British Prime minister Truss’s first telephonic conversation with Joe Biden and whether a possible US-UK deal is in the talks yet.
The question did not mention Northern Ireland, but Jean-Pierre brought it up anyway.
“There’s no formal linkage on trade talks between the US and the UK and the Northern Ireland protocol, as we have said, but efforts to undo the Northern Ireland protocol would not create a conducive environment, and that’s basically where we are in the dialogue,” Jean-Pierre said.
“Not conducive to a trade deal” is the administration’s established position on British threats, led by Truss, to pass legislative action negating part of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Northern Ireland Protocol emerged in the aftermath of Brexit- the controversial breakaway of the UK from the EU. The UK devised special trading arrangements with Northern Ireland because it shared a land border with the EU country- the Republic of Ireland.
Before Brexit, moving goods across the border was simple because both countries followed the same EU regulations.
Post-Brexit, a new system needed to be installed because the EU has strict food rules and requires border checks when certain goods- like milk and eggs- arrive from non-EU countries.
The protocol is the UK’s deal with the EU on how to square Brexit with an open border between the two Irelands established by the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. The US helped broker the deal, and there is significant bipartisan opposition to any move that might sabotage the protocol.
While Truss is greatly revered in US politics for her deep sympathy and support for the Ukrainian cause in Washington, her stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol can be seen as a major irritation in bilateral relations.
The White House was rather baffled when Truss announced in May, while she was foreign secretary, that the government would proceed with a rewriting of certain parts of the protocol in a manner widely considered to be a breach of international law. Boris Johnson had assured the Biden administration that no such changes would take place.
The legislation is winding its way through parliament, and the US has warned the government not to put it to a vote or risk rupture with both the US and EU.
The tension was evident in pointed differences between the official accounts of the Truss-Biden phone call. The Downing Street version said they had “agreed on the importance of protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement.”
The White House readout said they “discussed their shared commitment to protecting the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the importance of reaching a negotiated agreement with the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol”.
Addressing parliament on Wednesday, Truss said: “My preference is for a negotiated solution, but it does have to deliver all of the things we set out in the Northern Ireland protocol bill, and what we cannot allow is for this situation to drift.”
US officials welcomed the formidable nature of negotiation and stated preference for talks. The message delivered from the White House on Wednesday was intended to hinder from giving up on them, warning that the nature of ties could be at stake.
Asked if Biden and Truss would meet at the UN general assembly later this month, Jean-Pierre said: “We don’t have a meeting or anything like that to read out at this time.”