Frost and Sevcovic to meet amid mounting NI protocol crisis

London wants more flexibility from EU on goods checks as Biden expected to intervene

Britain's Brexit minister David Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic meet in London on Wednesday amid an escalating crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol and ahead of an expected intervention by US president Joe Biden.

Lord Frost on Tuesday night demanded more flexibility from the EU in applying the protocol’s agreed checks on goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

“Businesses in Great Britain are choosing not to sell their goods into Northern Ireland because of burdensome paperwork, medicine manufacturers are threatening to cut vital supplies, and chilled meats from British farmers destined for the Northern Ireland market are at risk of being banned entirely,” he said.

“I look to the EU to show flexibility and engage with our proposals so that we can find solutions that enjoy the confidence of all communities.”

Downing Street confirmed on Tuesday that Boris Johnson will meet Mr Biden in Cornwall on Thursday ahead of a meeting of G7 leaders. Mr Biden is expected to raise the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol and to warn Britain against any action that could undermine the peace process.

Lord Frost has linked progress on the protocol to the start of the loyalist marching season and last month met the Loyalist Communities Council which includes representatives of paramilitary groups.

Exploiting tensions

EU officials said the European Commission has been flexible and has offered solutions in numerous areas to ease issues on the ground where they arise, including on the movement of medicines, second-hand cars, livestock, and high-risk plants. London is seen as exploiting tensions in Northern Ireland in a bid to win concessions, and attempting to bring about the loose border arrangements it failed to achieve in negotiations through non-implementation of the deal.

“I’m afraid to say that, very often, calls for flexibility simply reflect UK intention not to uphold its obligations,” an EU official said.

The EU has threatened to retaliate with sanctions that could include tariffs if Britain unilaterally extends grace periods for checks on chilled meats such as sausages that expire at the end of this month. The British government has rejected an EU proposal for a temporary veterinary agreement that would remove more than 80 per cent of checks on the Irish Sea border but would require Britain to align with EU rules.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin sought to play down tensions between the European Union and the UK over the Northern Ireland protocol on Tuesday and said he remained confident a deal could be done to resolve issues between the sides.

Mr Martin said the most effective way to resolve issues over the protocol was within the framework of the existing agreement and the engagement between negotiators Mr Sevcovic and Lord Frost.

British failure

“We will take it step by step – before Christmas we had similar issues, we were heading towards a no-deal Brexit – Maros Sevcovic and David Frost managed to work things out and they got sorted,” he said.

Both sides were briefing heavily against each other in advance of the talks. British officials said they believed the EU would use its discretion not to impose intrusive checks in the North when the deal was reached, while EU sources said the British government had failed to implement basic elements of the deal it made last year.

In Dublin, officials were pessimistic about the state of play between the two sides, and senior sources said the British side appeared willing to use the tense situation in the North over the protocol to push the EU into concessions.

But the British side privately stressed the impact of the protocol on unionists, saying it “made them feel less British”.

"Further threats of legal action and trade retaliation from the EU won't make life any easier for the shopper in Strabane who can't buy their favourite product. Nor will it benefit the small business in Ballymena struggling to source produce from their supplier in Birmingham," Lord Frost said.