Senior Government and EU figures have held discussions to plan a response should the UK trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, a move both Dublin and Brussels expect in the coming weeks.
Senior Government figures say that triggering article 16 – effectively suspending the operation of the protocol – would precipitate a crisis in EU-UK relations.
On Sunday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the EU could move to set aside the entire free trade and co-operation agreement, reviving fears of a “no-deal Brexit” and tariffs on trade.
Mr Coveney said the EU “would respond in a very serious way” if the UK invoked article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, warning that the free trade agreement between the EU and UK depends on the protocol being operated by the UK.
“One is contingent on the other. So that if one is being set aside, there is a danger that the other will also be set aside by the EU,” Mr Coveney told RTÉ’s This Week programme.
He said he hoped the dispute would not escalate into a trade war between the EU and the UK, but that the EU would conclude the UK was not operating in good faith if article 16 was invoked.
Mr Coveney said he needed to be blunt in his warnings to the UK that the suspension of the protocol would not be viewed as a minor issue by the EU, and said the British government should not underestimate the impact of triggering article 16 in Brussels.
He said it was not a “technical issue” but would be seen by the EU as “deliberately forcing a breakdown in relations and negotiations between the two sides”.
Mr Coveney confirmed the Government and the EU were expecting the UK to trigger article 16 of the protocol and was sharply critical of the UK’s approach. “This is bad faith if it happens,” he said,
His comments come as senior officials said the mood in Brussels and Dublin was increasingly pessimistic over the protocol. A meeting between EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic and Lord David Frost on Friday ended without any agreement, though talks between officials are set to continue.
Meanwhile, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has said triggering article 16 is the last thing the North needs as the region grapples with Brexit and the pandemic.
Aodhán Connolly said: “There is a health crisis. We are still in the middle of a global pandemic. There are cost rises on everything from groceries to fuel, and this is affecting everyone’s pocket.
“So, what we don’t need is another headache by article 16 being invoked, or a long, protracted negotiation period.”