EU could retaliate against Britain over protocol, Coveney warns

Minister says status quo not sustainable as some states advocate possibility of tariffs

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney: “I think there is a sense within the EU and within EU capitals that the frustration has got to result in the EU perhaps changing the approach.” Photograph: Tom Honan

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney: “I think there is a sense within the EU and within EU capitals that the frustration has got to result in the EU perhaps changing the approach.” Photograph: Tom Honan

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Britain’s lack of co-operation in implementing the Northern Ireland protocol is driving European capitals to push for a tougher response from the European Commission, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has warned. Speaking in London ahead of a meeting on Friday morning with Brexit minister David Frost, Mr Coveney said Ireland wished to avoid a situation where the EU would take retaliatory action against Britain.

“I don’t think that the status quo is sustainable for much longer. And what I mean by that is where the EU is constantly trying to push ideas and proposals on the table around flexibility and how it might work and where that is not resulting in any agreement or any traction in terms of moving the process forward,” he told The Irish Times.

“I think there is a sense within the EU and within EU capitals that the frustration has got to result in the EU perhaps changing the approach. And instead of constantly trying to offer solutions and flexibility, remind the UK that there are consequences to not implementing agreements that have a basis in international law. From an Irish perspective, the last thing we want here is a legal standoff between the two sides or retaliation on the back of non-compliance with international agreements.”

Next week sees meetings of the partnership council that governs the trade agreement between Britain and the EU and the joint committee on implementing the protocol. United States president Joe Biden is expected to raise the issue of the protocol when he meets Boris Johnson at a G7 summit in Cornwall later next week.

European governments are increasingly impatient with the conduct of Lord Frost, who used a visit to Northern Ireland this week to accuse the EU of undermining the peace process by insisting on checks on goods moving from Great Britain to the North as set out in the protocol. Britain has unilaterally extended grace periods for some checks and Lord Frost has threatened to take further unilateral action.

Tougher action

Until now, the EU has limited its response to initiating legal proceedings against Britain but there are arbitration measures built into the protocol that could be triggered. Some member states believe the commission needs to take a tougher approach by taking retaliatory action under the trade and co-operation agreement that could include imposing tariffs on British goods.

“This is an EU issue where more and more EU countries are asking the hard questions. We signed up to an agreement. It’s not being implemented. Why not? And what are the consequences of that? And that is why I think we are at a moment now when, before this issue becomes a more controversial issue politically between the UK and the EU, we really have to try to secure some of the compromises and flexibilities and pragmatism that has been asked for to actually make this protocol work in a way that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland can, I hope, accept,” Mr Coveney said.

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