The UK government will suspend parts of the Brexit deal covering trade with Northern Ireland if it does not secure a sweeping package of concessions from the EU, Lord David Frost said on Monday.
Britain’s Brexit minister struck a pessimistic note as he addressed the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, warning that Brussels did not grasp the scale of the changes needed to resolve a deal that has dogged post-Brexit relations with the EU.
“I urge the EU to be ambitious. There is no point tinkering around the edges. We need significant changes,” he said.
The UK and Brussels have been engaged in negotiations since last July on the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Withdrawal Agreement which obliges all goods going from the British mainland to Northern Ireland to follow EU customs rules and regulations.
Despite agreeing to the arrangement in October 2019, Frost said the deal was “unsustainable” and is calling for a fundamental rewrite of the protocol, including removing scrutiny from the European Court of Justice.
The European Commission is working on a new set of proposals to alleviate some of the problems caused by the deal, which diplomats say will be presented this month.
However, Frost signaled that the UK had low expectations of the Brussels package and was prepared to unilaterally suspend parts of the deal, using a mechanism in the protocol known as an article 16.
“We are awaiting a formal response from the EU to our proposals. But from what I’m hearing, I’m afraid we won’t get one that delivers the meaningful change we need,” he said, adding that he had sent legal texts to the commission. based on the solutions outlined by the UK in July.
Officials on both sides said negotiators remained far apart. In a closed-door meeting with MEPs last week, EU Brexit Commissioner Maros Sefcovic made clear the bloc was open to ‘creative solutions’ to the impasse, but only within the legal framework. of the existing agreement.
Among the ideas are longer-term legislative solutions to facilitate the supply of medicines and new efforts to facilitate trade in the area of customs and animal health in Northern Ireland. But UK aspirations to strip the ECJ of its role were a no-start, Brussels insisted.
British officials have also said London will not tolerate a foreign court overseeing an internal trade border in the Irish Sea. Instead, they want an independent arbitration mechanism. “We must aim for trade with Belfast to be the same as trade with Birmingham,” one said.
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Once presented, Brussels’ counter-proposals were expected to lead to an intensive round of negotiations in late October or early November, officials said. Failure to reach an agreement would likely lead to the triggering of Article 16, a clause that either party can invoke if it deems the protocol causes “economic, societal or environmental hardship”.
The UK said in July that the threshold for using Article 16 had already been reached, but it was delaying its use in order to find solutions. The EU has for the same reason postponed legal action it took earlier this year over the UK’s breach of the terms of the protocol.
Once triggered, Article 16 would require a series of talks and, if no agreement was reached, possible legal and trade sanctions. EU officials have said Brussels’ reaction to the UK’s invocation of Article 16 will depend on whether London uses it to address narrow and specific areas of concern, or adopts a broader approach and suspended Irish Sea border controls entirely.
If the UK went too far, there was a risk of both wider trade retaliation and diplomatic fallout, officials said.
France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune warned in an interview with the Financial Times that invoking Article 16 could ‘kill the deal’, including elements of the EU trade and cooperation agreement -UK. He added that Paris hoped the UK would not take this step.
“It would show in any case that [the UK] does not want to respect the agreements that we have signed, that is to say the withdrawal agreement, and the trade and partnership agreement – and that would also be a major breach of trust, as well as a mistake for the stability of Ireland.
But London is under pressure from Protestant Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, who have dismissed the protocol as an attack on their community’s place in the UK and want it scrapped.
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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has threatened to collapse Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive as early as this month by removing his ministers unless the protocol is overturned.
Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, told the FT that triggering Article 16 would not go far enough. “It may well resolve narrow issues within the protocol and start a process of negotiation, but it is not a long-term solution.”
Officials from both sides said the next few months would be crucial in normalizing relations between the EU and the UK, which have been poisoned since January by the protocol issue.
Frost acknowledged that an agreement was essential to restore “friendly relations” with Brussels, adding: “But we cannot wait indefinitely. Without an agreed solution soon, we will have to act, using the safeguard mechanism of the article 16. »