Brexit trade deal at risk if Boris Johnson suspends Irish border protocol, EU warns

Talks in Brussels end without breakthrough on border

Jon Stone,Andrew Woodcock
Friday 19 November 2021 11:51
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<p>Lord Frost on his way to give a press statement ahead of a meeting with EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, in Brussels</p>

Lord Frost on his way to give a press statement ahead of a meeting with EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, in Brussels

Brussels has called on the UK government urgently to get a solution to problems at the Northern Ireland border “over the line”, after a fifth round of talks ended without breakthrough.

Brexit minister David Frost signalled that progress had been made in his talks in Brussels with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, stating that there was now the “potential to generate some momentum in our discussions”.

In a clear sign that Brussels believes the ball is now in London’s court to make concessions, Mr Sefcovic called on the UK to “make a clear move towards us” and said that resolving the impasse was “a real test of political goodwill”.

The Tory peer, who negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, has adopted a notably less combative tone in recent weeks, following earlier threats to suspend the agreement by activating Article 16.

While insisting that Article 16 remains “on the table”, Lord Frost said that the UK’s preference is “to see if we can find a negotiated agreement”.

And he admitted that there had not been “very much” discussion so far in his talks with Mr Sefcovic of the European Court of Justice, which the UK has made a central part of its demand for revision of the protocol, despite Mr Johnson having agreed in 2019 that it would have a role in adjudication on the operation of the EU single market in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of their talks on Friday, Mr Sefcovic gave a stark warning of the implications of the UK using Article 16, indicating that it would lead to the suspension of Mr Johnson’s zero-tariff trade deal with Brussels, effectively triggering a trade war.

The 2020 Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) is “intrinsically linked” to the implementation of the Northern Ireland border protocol, said the EU’s Brexit chief, adding: “One cannot exist without the other.”

The TCA guarantees UK businesses effectively zero tariffs when trading with the EU – cushioning some of the self-inflicted economic blow of Brexit.

Following Friday’s talks, Mr Sefcovic said it was time to “shift into a result-oriented mode” and deliver solutions to the concerns of Northern Irish citizens and businesses over the additional bureaucratic obstacles to trade between the North and the British mainland created by Mr Johnson’s deal.

The EU on 13 October presented a compromise offer which it says would streamline the certification and checks on animals and animal products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and cut about 80 per cent of physical checks on movements other goods.

But the UK has so far refused to accept the offer without action to remove ECJ jurisdiction in the North.

Mr Sefcovic called on the UK government to “make a clear move towards us in the area of sanitary and phytosanitary [SPS] controls to reciprocate the big move made by the EU”.

And he said: “It is essential that the recent change in tone now leads to joint tangible solutions in the framework of the protocol.

“This remains the case particularly for the uninterrupted long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

“There is a genuine urgency. We welcome the progress this week. We now need to press on and get this crucial issue across the line.

“This is a real test of political goodwill. The EU, for its part, is confident that our proposed solution, addressing all concerns raised by industry, would bring much needed clarity and foster a positive political momentum.”

Lord Frost said the talks had created the “potential to generate some momentum in our discussions” and that “some progress” had been made.

But he said there were still “significant gaps” across most issues and no substantive progress on the “the fundamental customs and SPS issues relating to goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”.

The protocol was introduced to keep the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland open after Brexit, by placing the customs border between the UK market and the EU single market in the Irish Sea, rather than at the border itself.

But unionists are concerned that it is disrupting trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Speaking via video link ahead of the talks, Mr Sefcovic told an event at the Brexit Institute at Dublin City University: “Settling the divorce has always been and remains a precondition for our future relationship.

“It was on this basis that we negotiated, concluded and ratified the trade and co-operation agreement on Christmas Eve last year.

“The two agreements are intrinsically linked; one cannot exist without the other.”

Local government secretary Michael Gove met Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin at a summit of the British-Irish Council on Friday. Asked whether he thought the UK was stepping away from the threat of triggering Article 16, Mr Martin said: “I believe both governments and all the administrations here share a common desire to get these issues resolved through negotiation.

“Perfect must never be the enemy of the good and so I think we must be practical and pragmatic, and get these issues resolved by negotiation.”

Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic will meet again in London next week.

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