The British government will suspend parts of the Brexit deal covering trade with Northern Ireland if it does not obtain a comprehensive set of concessions from the EU, Lord David Frost said on Monday.
The UK Brexit minister issued a pessimistic note when addressing the Conservative party conference in Manchester, warning that Brussels was not understanding the scale of the changes needed to fix a deal that had affected post-Brexit relations with the EU. .
“I urge the EU to be ambitious. There is no use retouching the edges. We need a significant change, ”he said.
The UK and Brussels have been locked in negotiations since last July over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Withdrawal Agreement that requires all goods going from the British mainland to Northern Ireland to follow customs rules and regulations. of the EU.
Despite accepting the deal in October 2019, Frost has now declared the deal “unsustainable” and is calling for a fundamental rewrite of the protocol, including removing oversight from the European Court of Justice.
The European Commission is drawing up a new set of proposals to alleviate some of the problems caused by the deal, which diplomats hope will be presented later this month.
However, Frost noted that the UK had low expectations of the Brussels package and was prepared to unilaterally suspend parts of the deal using a mechanism in the protocol known as Article 16.
“We await a formal response from the EU to our proposals. But from what I heard, I am concerned that we will not get one that will allow for the significant change we need, ”he said, adding that he had sent legal texts to the Commission based on solutions outlined by the UK in July.
Officials on both sides said the negotiators remained widely separated. In a closed-door meeting with MEPs last week, EU Brexit Commissioner Maros Sefcovic made clear that the bloc was open to “creative solutions” to the showdown, but only within the legal framework of the existing deal.
Ideas include longer-term legislative solutions to help drug supply and new efforts to facilitate trade in the field of customs and animal health in Northern Ireland. But UK aspirations to strip the European Court of Justice of its role were futile, Brussels has insisted.
UK officials similarly said that London would not tolerate a foreign court overseeing an internal trade border in the Irish Sea. Instead, they want an independent arbitration mechanism. “We have to set a goal that trading with Belfast is the same as trading with Birmingham,” said one.
Once submitted, the Brussels counterproposals are expected to lead to a series of intensive negotiations in late October or early November, the officials said. If no agreement is reached, Article 16 is likely to be activated, a clause that either party can invoke if they believe the protocol is causing “economic, social or environmental hardship.”
The UK said in July that the threshold for using Article 16 had already been reached, but is delaying its use to find solutions. The EU has deferred legal action for the same reason it took earlier this year for the UK’s breach of the terms of the protocol.
Once activated, Article 16 would lead to a series of additional negotiations and, if no agreement was reached, possible legal and commercial penalties. EU officials said Brussels’ reaction to the UK’s invocation of Article 16 would depend on whether London used it to address narrow and specific areas of concern, or took a broader approach and suspended border controls entirely. of the Irish Sea.
If the UK went too far, there was a risk of broader trade retaliation and diplomatic fallout, officials said.
The French Minister for Europe, Clément Beaune, warned in an interview with the FT that the invocation of Article 16 could “end the agreement”, including elements of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. He added that Paris hoped the UK would not take that step.
“It would show in any case that [the UK] it does not want to respect the agreements that we have signed, that is, the withdrawal agreement and the trade and association agreement, and it would also be a great breach of trust, as well as a mistake for the stability of Ireland, ”he said. said.
But London is under pressure from Northern Ireland’s Protestant unionist parties who have rejected the protocol as an attack on their community’s place within the UK and want it removed.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has threatened to collapse Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive as early as this month by withdrawing his ministers unless protocol is adhered to.
Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, told the FT that activating Article 16 would not be enough. “It could well address specific issues within the protocol and start a negotiation process, but it is not a long-term solution,” he said.
Officials from both sides said the next few months will be crucial in normalizing relations between the EU and the UK, which have been poisoned since January by the protocol issue.
Frost acknowledged that an agreement was essential to re-establish “friendly relations” with Brussels, adding: “But we cannot wait forever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will have to act, using the Article 16 safeguard mechanism. “