The UK government has accused Brussels of “wilful misrepresentation” of its position on Northern Ireland, in the continuing row over the territory’s Brexit agreement.
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice-president, had warned that “not one” of the business representatives he had spoken to in Northern Ireland had asked him to “scrap the protocol” – the treaty that gives the area a special status.
Mr Sefcovic said he was “increasingly concerned” that the UK government would “refuse to engage” with this fact “and embark on a path of confrontation”.
The feeling was apparently endorsed by the Irish government, whose foreign minister Simon Coveney shared the quote on social media on Monday.
But the comments provoked anger in Westminster. Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said: “The UK government is not arguing to scrap the protocol, and never has. This is a wilful misrepresentation of the position outlined in our Command Paper in July.”
Mr Lewis argued that the UK was actually “seeking is to make changes with the sole purpose of finding more durable arrangements that work best for the people of Northern Ireland”.
Lord Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, blamed the agreement for causing disruption to trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
It imposes extra controls on trade across the Irish Sea as a flipside to keeping the border open with the Republic of Ireland – which all sides agree is necessary for the peace process.
The EU has offered a package of measures that it says would reduce checks and paperwork. The plan was welcomed by the UK but No 10 says it does not go far enough.
The UK also wants the protocol to ditch any reliance on the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to settle disputes – despite having signed up to exactly that just two years ago. The UK argues separately that the role for the ECJ is a breach of sovereignty and does not appear to blame it for any of the economic problems.
The EU wants the ECJ to have a role because it is the only body that can interpret EU law under the bloc’s treaties – and EU law applies in Northern Ireland by virtue of it effectively being in the single market and customs union.
Talks are ongoing between the two sides in Brussels, with the latest read-out from officials suggesting both sides have made some progress but are still far apart.
The UK’s latest missive was met with scepticism by some observers. David Henig, the UK director of European Centre for International Political Economy think-tank, said: “Is retention of something called a Northern Ireland protocol but removal of all of its substantive provisions to scrap it or not?”
Mr Henig suggested that the UK’s claim was “the sort of position that encourages the EU view of UK negotiating as being akin to gangster politics”.
The UK has warned that it could trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, effectively suspending it unilaterally within the rules of the treaty.
The row is running in parallel to a dispute about post-Brexit fishing rights off the Channel Islands. French fishermen are accusing the UK of infringing on their right to continue fishing the area, in line with the Brexit deal. France has threatened retaliation including potentially banning UK vessels from landing fish in French ports.
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