Implementation of the UK’s Brexit deal with the European Union has been “more than bumpy” in the six weeks after the transition out of the single market and customs union, Boris Johnson’s chief negotiator has admitted.
David Frost cited the row over Covid vaccines, disruptions to trade with Northern Ireland, the stand-off over Britain’s refusal to grant EU representatives diplomatic status and what he described as “niggling” border issues over shellfish, as he admitted London and Brussels had failed to achieve the “friendly cooperation between sovereign equals” which the UK claimed to be seeking in divorce talks.
Giving evidence to the House of Lords EU Committee, Lord Frost – now Mr Johnson’s Brexit policy representative – confirmed that the European parliament was now expected to request an extension to the two-month period for MEPs to ratify the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), potentially taking the EU’s formal adoption of the deal to Easter or beyond.
And he complained that the head of the UK mission in Brussels was being denied political-level contacts in what one member committee described as a “tit-for-tat” retaliation after London refused to give the EU’s representatives diplomatic status.
But Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove attempted to play down the significance of the series of rows and setbacks which have followed the end of the transition period on 1 January, comparing the difficulties facing businesses as a result of Brexit to turbulence on take-off before a smooth air flight.
Mr Gove insisted he did not want to “pooh-pooh” the complaints of businesses in Northern Ireland faced with extra red tape because of Boris Johnson’s trade deal with the EU, but said he believed problems could be dealt with by changes on the ground, rather than ripping up the Northern Ireland Protocol as the DUP have demanded.
His comments came amid reports that Brussels will offer only a three- or six-month extension to “grace periods” to ease supermarket supply chains and parcel deliveries to Northern Ireland, rather than the longer delay to January 2023 which he has requested.
Lord Frost told the committee: “We said ad nauseam last year during the negotiations that we wanted ‘friendly cooperation between sovereign equals’ as our vision of the future. And that is still what we want.
“I don’t think that’s been quite the experience of last few weeks, if we are honest about it.
“I think the EU is still adjusting somewhat – as we thought they might – to the existence of a genuinely independent actor in their neighbourhood.”
Listing rows over vaccines, Northern Ireland, trade barriers and diplomatic status, he told peers: “None of those things are in themselves dramatic, although some have been very, very serious.
“I think it has been more than bumpy, to be honest, in the last six weeks. I think it's been problematic.
“I hope we’ll get over this. It is going to require a different spirit, probably, from the EU but I’m sure we are going to see that and see some of this subside as we go forward.”
Mr Gove told the committee that the conditions of “serious economic or societal difficulties” required for the UK to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol were already in place, allowing Mr Johnson to use the mechanism to override certain provisions of the agreement.
But ahead of talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in London on Thursday, he insisted that both sides want to “proceed in a pragmatic and constructive way”.
“We all know that when an aeroplane takes off, that’s the point when you sometimes get that increased level of turbulence,” he said. “But then eventually you reach a cruising altitude and the crew tell you to take your seatbelt off and enjoy a gin and tonic and some peanuts.
“We’re not at the gin and tonic and peanuts stage yet, but I’m confident we will be.”
Confronted with the experience of a heritage railway operator in Downpatrick who was unable to find a courier willing to ship items from the British mainland without onerous paperwork, Mr Gove compared the situation to his experience of taxi drivers in London who refused to accept Scottish banknotes.
He said he wanted to “bust myths” about the difficulties created by the new customs documentation required for trade across the Irish Sea under the terms of Mr Johnson’s deal.
“The truth is that there are there are some businesses who, when it comes to trade – both with the EU and also with the dispatch of goods to Northern Ireland – are taking a little bit of time to adjust to the new normal,” he said.
“There is a reticence and a caution amongst some that we're doing our very best to dispel by making clear what the processes are and how it is possible to comply with them with the least possible disruption to effective activity.”
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