The British parliament has passed the first stage of legislation allowing the UK to rip up parts of the post-Brexit treaty it signed with the EU, covering trade with Northern Ireland.
A bill paving the way for some of the rules set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol to be scrapped was passed by the House of Commons, with 295 votes in favour and 221 against.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped that the plans, which have angered the European Union and sparked fears of a trade war, could become law by the end of the year.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would unilaterally overturn part of Britain's divorce deal from the EU agreed in 2020, now proceeds to line-by-line scrutiny.
Tensions with the EU have simmered for months after Britain accused Brussels of insisting on a heavy-handed approach to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland. Checks were agreed in the treaty as necessary to keep an open land border with EU member the Republic of Ireland — considered vital to protect the 1998 peace deal that ended decades of sectarian conflict.
Johnson has described the changes he is seeking as "relatively trivial" and ministers insist the move does not break international law, despite much expert opinion to the contrary. The EU has revived legal proceedings against the UK over its plans.
The British government says the rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, are burdening businesses and undermining peace in Northern Ireland. It argues the unilateral move is justified under international law because of the “genuinely exceptional situation.”
Johnson’s opponents, however, say the move is illegal.
“Many of us are extremely concerned that the bill brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty, it trashes our international reputation, it threatens a trade war at a time when our economy is flat and it puts us at odds with our most important ally,” Conservative Andrew Mitchell said in parliament on Monday.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss replied that the government's plans are the only solution to resolve trade problems in Northern Ireland because the EU has been unwilling to reopen negotiations.
The European Commission has made proposals to ease trade friction but refuses to renegotiate the treaty that was painstakingly thrashed out with the UK before it left the bloc. Nor is there any appetite in EU capitals for a renegotiation.
Many businesses in Northern Ireland welcome the dual access available under the protocol to both UK and EU markets. The trade deal keeps the North subject to EU single market rules.
Recent elections in Northern Ireland delivered a majority of parties in favour of the protocol. However the second largest party, the unionist DUP, has refused to join a statutory power-sharing arrangement unless its provisions are scrapped.