Brexit minister steps back from invoking Article 16 of Northern Ireland protocol

David Frost said negotiations should continue for a ‘short number of weeks’

Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost has stepped back from invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, telling the House of Lords that negotiations should continue for “a short number of weeks”. He said that although the gap between Britain and the EU remained wide, the two sides had moved closer during four weeks of talks.

“In my view, this process of negotiations has not reached its end. Although we have been talking for nearly four weeks, there remain possibilities that the talks have not yet seriously examined, including many approaches suggested by the UK. So there is more to do and I certainly will not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done. We are certainly not at that point yet,” he said.

Lord Frost’s statement follows intense speculation in London, Brussels and Dublin that the British government was on the verge of triggering Article 16, perhaps as early as next week. He told the Conservative party conference last month that the negotiations should not last more than three weeks, suggesting that he would trigger Article 16 if the two sides had not reached agreement within that time.

“We need a short and intensive negotiation, and when I say short, I mean weeks, three weeks,” he said on October 4th.



“I personally believe there comes a decision point probably around early November when we know an agreement can be reached or it cannot and certain consequences flow from that.”

European politicians, including Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, have warned in recent days that the EU could respond to triggering Article 16 by terminating the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Lord Frost said on Wednesday that threatening such action was unhelpful and that such a response would be unreasonable.

“I think there is a difference between a legitimate provision in a treaty, which is Article 16, and threats to do things outside the treaty, which are the threats that have been made to us in the last few weeks,” he said.

Lord Frost said that if the current negotiations did not succeed “in the short number of weeks before us” Britain would have no option but to invoke Article 16. He said that would mean using “wholly legitimate safeguard provisions within the treaty” which were designed for situations such as the current one.

“If the EU were to choose to react in a disproportionate way and decide to aggravate the problems in Northern Ireland, rather than reduce them, that is of course a matter for them. At that point, of course, we would be entitled to come to our own judgment about how much value we could attach to their commitment to supporting the peace process and the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, as against protecting their own interests,” he said.

Mr Coveney, who was in Glasgow for the Cop26 climate conference, welcomed Lord Frost’s commitment to further negotiations but he said there had been little evidence until now that Britain was engaging seriously with the EU’s proposals.

“We know this is a difficult, robust negotiation, but we do need to focus on trying to get outcomes from the negotiation, as opposed to unilateral action that I think will make things a lot worse rather than better in terms of relationships, trust and ultimately the impact in particular on Northern Ireland. Because these debates are having such a polarising and corrosive impact on politics in Northern Ireland, forcing people to take sides when actually people should be focusing on compromise, flexibility and solutions, which is certainly where the European Union is,” he said.