BRUSSELS – European Union lawmakers are set to formally ratify the post-Brexit deal between the EU and the United Kingdom amid ongoing tensions between London and Brussels over Northern Ireland trade rules.
The deal, which was finalized on Christmas Eve, already has been ratified by the U.K. Parliament and conditionally came into force pending the European Parliament's approval.
Because of disagreement on how to apply trade rules in Northern Ireland, some EU legislators previously threatened to hold back the ratification vote, but a large majority of lawmakers are in favor of the deal.
Results of the vote are set to be announced on Wednesday, almost five years after U.K. voters decided to withdraw from the bloc.
“This deal is not good because Brexit is not good. The situation is also complicated because we cannot be sure how trustworthy the UK government really is," said Terry Reintke, the vice-president of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. “Still, this agreement can be a starting point reconstructing what we lost due to Brexit."
Top European Union officials and their British counterparts have so far failed to find common ground on implementing the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which were designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, and to guarantee the integrity of the bloc's single market.
In March, the U.K. government unilaterally extended until October a grace period for not conducting checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., a decision that led the EU to start legal action against its former member nation.
In an address to EU lawmakers ahead of Tuesday's ratification vote, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she shared their concerns on “unilateral actions taken by (the) United Kingdom" but noted some progress in the talks with British officials.
“In recent days and weeks, we have seen a new constructive dynamic, and we will continue to work closely with the U.K. to find constructive solutions that respect what was agreed,” she said.
Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. but remained part of the EU’s single market for goods after Brexit to avoid customs checks at the territory’s border with EU member Ireland. An open Irish border helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
But tensions and violence have escalated in recent weeks, with unionists saying the arrangement the British government and the EU worked out has amounted to the creation of a border between the territory and the rest of the U.K.
The sensitivity of Northern Ireland's status also was in September when the U.K. Parliament considered legislation that would have given Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government the power to override part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
The tension increased in January when the EU threatened to ban shipments of coronavirus vaccines to Northern Ireland as part of moves to shore up the bloc’s supply. That would have drawn a hard border on the island of Ireland - exactly the scenario the Brexit deal was crafted to avoid.
Relations between the EU and the U.K. have been strained since a Brexit transition period ended on Jan. 1. The two sides have argued so far this year over issues ranging from COVID-19 vaccine supplies to the full diplomatic recognition of the EU in Britain.