Dutch PM offered to mediate in UK’s Brexit row with Brussels over Irish border, says Boris Johnson

PM refuses to rule out collapsing protocol deal by invoking Article 16

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 20 September 2021 13:07
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Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte offered to mediate in the ongoing dispute between the UK and EU over post-Brexit arrangements for the Irish border, Boris Johnson has said.

Any move to insert a national leader into the process would represent a step away from the Brussels rule that negotiations on the Brexit deal take place only directly between London and the European Commission.

But there was no indication that Mr Johnson had asked Mr Rutte to take any formal role in resolving the impasse when the two men met on Friday evening at 10 Downing Street.

The prime minister was speaking days ahead of a face-to-face White House meeting with Joe Biden, who has warned him not to allow his row with the EU over the border protocol to endanger peace in Northern Ireland.

But he refused to rule out invoking Article 16 of the protocol, which allows the UK to suspend the operation of post-Brexit arrangements at the border but exposes it to the risk of retaliatory action from Brussels, including trade tariffs.

The implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol has been the most contentious element of the EU withdrawal deal negotiatied by Mr Johnson, with Brussels initiating legal action over unilateral extensions by the UK to so-called “grace periods” before regulations come into force in full.

Earlier this month, Britain indefinitely delayed the implementation of full checks on products of animal origin and a ban on movements of chilled meats between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, which had been due to come into effect on 1 October.

Although the move was taken without the EU’s agreement, the European Commission indicated it would not take legal steps.

However, the Commission said it would not renegotiate the terms of the deal agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019, as demanded by Brexit minister Lord Frost in a command paper in July. And there has been little sign since of progress in talks to resolve the issue.

Speaking as he flew to the US for talks with President Biden, Mr Johnson today said the stalemate cannot be allowed to “go on forever”.

“I talked to Mark Rutte the other night who wanted to come and see if he could mediate on the issue and I said ‘You know we really want to make progress,” he told reporters. “We seek a solution, but it has to be one that allows the free movement of goods between all parts of our country’.”

And he added: “The current situation can’t go on forever.”

But he gave no indication that the UK is prepared for compromise to resolve the issue which has massively increased bureaucratic checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the British mainland and has prompted the DUP to threaten withdrawal of its ministers from the Stormont power-sharing executive.

The problems stem from Mr Johnson’s decision to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea, as a means of extracting Theresa May’s “backstop” from the deal governing the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

The protocol negotiated and agreed by Mr Johnson and his Brexit minister David Frost in 2019 effectively keeps Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market and shifts customs  checks from the border with the Republic to the ports and airports of entry from the British mainland.

London does not accuse the EU of breaching the protocol, but claims it is being implemented in an over-zealous way.

Mr Johnson denied he was picking a fight with Brussels to please his Brexit-backing supporters.

“I hope everybody knows this isn’t something that the UK government is trying to stoke up for our own political purposes,” he said. “On the contrary, we want to fix this, we want common sense.

“We want no barriers in the UK for trading in our country and it’s crazy at the moment that we’ve got the protocol being enforced or being used in the way that it is.

“I don’t believe it’s sensible, 20 per cent of all checks in the whole of the perimeter of the EU are now done in Northern Ireland. So we do need to sort it out, we need to sort it out fast.”

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