Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister has issued a veiled threat that the UK is ready to walk away from key elements of its Northern Ireland border agreement with the EU unless Brussels gives ground in talks.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he acknowledged that Downing Street failed to anticipate the additional paperwork and checks which would result from the deal, which he negotiated and Mr Johnson signed and pushed through parliament.
Despite the EU making clear throughout negotiations that maintaining the integrity of the single market was a red line for Brussels, Lord Frost accused the 27-nation bloc of taking an unnecessarily “purist” approach to maintaining the customs border in the Irish Sea created by Mr Johnson’s deal.
The minister’s intervention is an indication of failure to make progress in talks on the Protocol with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic which have been going on for more than two months.
European Commission negotiators have offered to drop checks on food products travelling from the mainland to Northern Ireland if the UK aligns itself with EU plant, animal health, environment and food safety rules.
But Lord Frost has resisted this gambit, which would tie the UK’s hands in trade negotiations with countries like the US. Instead, he said today that it was for the EU to “stop point-scoring” and “find a new approach and new solutions” to resolve the situation.
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allows either the UK or EU to withdraw from provisions in the agreement if they threaten serious and lasting “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” in the province.
And Lord Frost left no doubt that the government is considering activating the article - which would allow Brussels to respond with “rebalancing” measures, which could include tariffs on UK exports.
“If the Protocol operates so as to damage the political, social, or economic fabric of life in Northern Ireland, then that situation cannot be sustained for long,” warned the Tory peer.
“We are responsible for protecting the peace and prosperity of everyone in Northern Ireland and we will continue to consider all our options for doing so.”
Confronted by The Independent with the disruption caused to economic life in Northern Ireland by his Brexit deal, Mr Johnson told a press conference on 8 March that he was “optimistic” that the issues would soon be resolved with the application of “goodwill and imagination”.
But Lord Frost said today that shops in Northern Ireland had told him that suppliers in the UK are unwilling to sell them their products because they find it “too difficult and too time-consuming to deal with the paperwork” created by the Brexit agreement.
“Risks to the supply of all kinds of products remain and may well get worse as the year progresses,” he said.
Lord Frost dismissed EU concerns over products which do not meet its standards entering the single market through Northern Ireland as “a risk that does not exist”.
He did not accuse Brussels of breaching the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But he said: “The EU takes a very purist view of all this. It seems to want to treat goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in the same way as the arrival of a vast Chinese container ship at Rotterdam. We did not anticipate this when we agreed the Protocol and it makes no sense.
“I totally understand why this makes unionism in Northern Ireland anxious and why consent for the Protocol is now fragile. Protests have been occurring and political stability is at risk.
“Our overriding aim has always been to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. If the Protocol is not protecting it, it is not working.
“The EU has a responsibility here. The Protocol is a shared UK-EU agreement. The EU needs, rapidly, to find a new approach and new solutions.”
He added: “So my message to our friends in Europe is: stop the point-scoring and work with us. Seize the moment, help find a new approach to Northern Ireland, and then we can build a new relationship for the future.”
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