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LONDON — Britain set itself on course for a new confrontation with the European Union on Tuesday by demanding the replacement of one of the most complex and vexing components of Brexit: the status of Northern Ireland.

In a speech to diplomats in Lisbon, Portugal, David Frost, the Conservative government’s Brexit minister, asked for an overhaul of an agreement on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but shares a politically sensitive land border with Ireland, an EU country.

The move is a serious escalation in a simmering dispute over how Northern Ireland fits into the British withdrawal from the EU. Frost’s proposed new text for the trade rules, called the Northern Ireland protocol, discards some elements that Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to less than two years ago and contains ideas the EU has already rejected.


“We now face a very serious situation: The protocol is not working,” Frost said, arguing that instead of protecting a fragile peace process in Northern Ireland, the agreement was doing the opposite.

His speech was something of a preemptive strike, coming just one day before the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, is scheduled to present its own plans to resolve the difficulties it acknowledges have arisen with trade mainly between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Designed to avoid resurrecting a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the protocol has led to checks on goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland.

That is to protect the integrity of the EU’s giant single market of which Ireland is a part. But it has infuriated Unionists in Northern Ireland who see their place within the United Kingdom as central to their identity and who resent checks on goods flowing from mainland Britain, which is part of the same country.


Although some analysts believe Johnson wants to walk away from the protocol to please Brexit hard-liners at home, others see Tuesday’s speech by Frost more as a tactical intervention designed to minimize the influence of Brussels over any part of the U.K. and maximize British sovereignty.

For its part, the EU has repeatedly rejected Britain’s calls for a renegotiation of the agreement.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.