Frost threatens to suspend part of Northern Ireland-EU deal

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The UK government will suspend parts of the Brexit deal covering trade with Northern Ireland if it does not get a broad set of concessions from the EU, Lord David Frost said on Monday.

Britain’s Brexit Minister made a pessimistic note as he addressed the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, warning that Brussels was failing to grasp the scale of the changes needed to resolve a deal that has hampered post relations -Brexit with the EU.

“I urge the EU to be ambitious. There is no point in tinkering around the edges. We need significant changes, ”he said.

The UK and Brussels have been engaged in negotiations since last July on the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Withdrawal Agreement that requires all goods going from the British mainland to Northern Ireland comply with EU customs rules and regulations.

Although he agreed to the arrangement in October 2019, Frost has now declared the deal “unsustainable” and calls for a fundamental rewrite of the protocol, including the removal of oversight from the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission is developing a new set of proposals to alleviate some of the problems caused by the deal, which diplomats say will be presented later this month.

However, Frost signaled 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 the article. 16.

“We are awaiting a formal response from the EU to our proposals. But from what I hear, I’m afraid we won’t get one that allows for the meaningful change we need, ”he said, adding that he had sent legal texts to the committee. based on the solutions described by the UK in July.

Officials on both sides said negotiators remained very distant. In a closed-door meeting with MEPs last week, EU Brexit Commissioner Maros Sefcovic made it clear that the bloc was open to ‘creative solutions’ to the deadlock, but only within the legal framework of the existing agreement.

A poster at the port of Larne in Northern Ireland protesting the protocol © Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

Ideas include longer term legislative solutions to facilitate drug supply and new efforts to facilitate trade in customs and animal health in Northern Ireland. But the UK’s aspirations to strip the ECJ of its role have not worked, Brussels insisted.

British officials have also said London will not tolerate a foreign court overseeing an internal trade border in the Irish Sea. Instead, they want an independent arbitration mechanism. “We have to make it our goal that trade with Belfast is the same as trade with Birmingham,” said one of them.

Once presented, the Brussels counter-proposals are expected to lead to an intensive round of negotiations in late October or early November, officials said. Failure to agree would likely lead to the triggering of article 16, a clause that both parties can invoke if they deem the protocol causing “economic, societal or environmental hardship.”

The UK said in July that the threshold for using Article 16 had already been reached, but was delaying its use in order to find solutions. For the same reason, the EU has postponed the lawsuit it initiated earlier this year over the UK’s breach of the terms of the protocol.

Once triggered, Article 16 would lead to the continuation of a round of negotiations and, if no agreement was reached, to potential legal and trade sanctions. EU officials have said Brussels’ reaction to the UK’s invocation of Article 16 will depend on whether London uses it to address narrow and specific areas of concern, or takes a more wide and completely suspended border controls on the Irish Sea.

French Europe Minister Clément Beaune said Paris hoped the UK would not invoke Article 16 © Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP / Getty Images

If the UK went too far, there was a risk of both broader trade retaliation and diplomatic fallout, officials said.

French Europe Minister Clément Beaune warned in an interview with the FT that invoking Article 16 could ‘kill the deal’, including elements of the EU trade and cooperation agreement -UK. He added that Paris hoped the UK would not take this step.

“That would show in any case that [the UK] does not want to abide by the agreements that we signed, that is to say the withdrawal agreement, and the trade and partnership agreement – and that would also be a big breach of trust, as well as a mistake for the stability of Ireland, ”he said.

But London is under pressure from Protestant Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, who have rejected the protocol as an attack on their community’s place in the UK and want it scrapped.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, threatened to bring down Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive as early as this month by withdrawing his ministers unless protocol is enforced.

Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, told the FT that triggering Article 16 would not go far enough. “This may well address narrow issues within the protocol and start a negotiating process, but it’s not a long-term solution,” he said.

Officials on both sides have said the coming months will be crucial in normalizing EU-UK relations which have been plagued since January by the protocol issue.

Frost acknowledged that an agreement was essential to reestablish “friendly relations” with Brussels, adding: “But we cannot wait forever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will have to act, using the safeguard mechanism of Article 16. ”


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