Britain and the EU appear on the brink of a trade war after Brussels accused Boris Johnson of insincerity in talks over Northern Ireland’s future and warned of ‘serious consequences if Downing Street suspended the post-Brexit deal.
Coming out of his tense latest meeting with Britain’s Brexit minister, EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič said that despite Brussels’ attempts to find a compromise, “we haven’t seen any movement on the British side”.
The two sides have been in talks for three weeks over changes to how the Brexit deal will work to ensure the free flow of trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU has proposed halving customs checks and health checks on animal and plant products destined for supermarkets by 80%, but Šefčovič suggested that David Frost, the Brexit minister, had done little to s engage in the proposals.
“I found this disappointing and once again I urge the UK government to genuinely engage with us,” Šefčovič said. “From that point of view, I see next week as an important week. We should concentrate all our efforts on finding a solution as soon as possible.
“Our aim should be to establish stability and predictability for Northern Ireland. We hear a lot about Article 16 at the moment, but there is no doubt that triggering Article 16 to ask for the negotiation of the protocol would have serious consequences.
“Serious for Northern Ireland, as it would lead to instability and unpredictability, and also serious for EU-UK relations in general, as it would mean a rejection of EU efforts to find a consensual solution to the implementation of the protocol.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland effectively remains in the single market for goods while EU customs regulations are applied to goods entering from Britain. Brussels has acknowledged that the implementation of these arrangements has created political disruption in Northern Ireland.
Lord Frost, however, reiterated on Friday that the proposed remedies did not go far enough. The British government wants to maintain the free flow of trade between Northern Ireland and the wider single market, including the Republic, but without the European Court of Justice playing a role of arbiter on respect for the right to the EU.
“Lord Frost presented the UK’s assessment of the protocol negotiations,” a UK government spokesman said of the meeting with Šefčovič. “He stressed that progress had been limited and that the EU proposals did not effectively address fundamental difficulties in the operation of the protocol.”
Article 16 of the protocol allows each party to take unilateral “safeguard measures” that would suspend parts of Johnson’s deal with Brussels if it results in “serious economic, societal or environmental hardship”.
Such a move would be seen as inflammatory in EU capitals, which have been infuriated by Downing Street’s refusal to implement a deal struck in October 2019. Ahead of his meeting in Brussels, Frost nevertheless warned that the outbreak of Article 16 was “fully on the table”. adding that time was running out.
“We hope to make progress, but honestly the gap between us is still quite big, but let’s see how far we can go,” he said. “We’re not going to trigger Article 16 today, but Article 16 is definitely on the table and has been since July.
“Time is running out for these talks if we are to make progress.”
Frost had set the EU a three-week deadline after the October 12 publication in Brussels of a plan to drastically reduce the level of controls on trade from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Any decision on Article 16 is widely expected to be taken after the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, which are due to conclude on November 12.
Frost said, “I’m not going to give any time frame or guesswork. There is a big gap between us. If that gap closes and the commission listens to what we said in the command document and looks at the situation in Northern Ireland, maybe that will help us move things forward.
There has been speculation that the UK could use Article 16 to implement its vision for Northern Ireland, as set out in a command document from July. However, the treaty only allows actions “strictly necessary” “to remedy the situation”. There is an ongoing debate in government about what this legally allows.
If the UK triggers Article 16, the EU will have several options, including notification of the termination of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which guarantees duty-free trade.
EU sources said Brussels was unlikely to make such a move given the range of other options in the treaty to respond to the UK, including targeted tariffs on UK exports.