The EU has warned Britain it could impose trade sanctions if there is a further breach of the Northern Ireland protocol, after "very difficult" talks in London failed to make a breakthrough on issues in relation to the protocol.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said he told British Brexit minister David Frost that a unilateral extension by the UK at the end of this month of grace periods for checks on some goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland could provoke retaliatory action. The checks are required under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, a part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement that ensures a special post-Brexit trading status for Northern Ireland and has been the source of recent tensions in the North.
“If the UK were to take further unilateral action over the coming weeks, the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by the international law obligations,” Mr Sefcovic told a press conference on Wednesday following a meeting of the joint committee that governs the implementation of the protocol.
“We discussed it at great length this morning, when I was clearly advising against unilateral action and I was explaining what our steps would be.”
He said retaliatory action could include the suspension of parts of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) that offers British goods tariff-free and quota-free access to the EU market.
Mr Sefcovic insisted the EU has shown “enormous patience” in the face of “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the UK’s compliance with the withdrawal agreement.
“Of course, as you would understand, the fact that I mentioned that we are at a crossroads means that our patience really is wearing very, very thin, and therefore we have to assess all options we have at our disposal,” he said.
Wednesday's talks came ahead of US president Joe Biden's meeting with British PM Boris Johnson in Cornwall on Thursday, when the US president is expected to raise the issue of the protocol. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the BBC that the protocol was critical to ensuring that "the spirit, promise and future" of the Belfast Agreement is protected.
Lord Frost said the latest meeting had not produced either a breakthrough or a breakdown in negotiations about implementing the protocol and he said Britain would consider “all options” if the EU did not agree to bend the rules for the protocol further.
“The problem we’ve got is the protocol is being implemented in a way which is causing disruption in Northern Ireland and we had some pretty frank and honest discussions about that situation today,” he said.
“There weren’t any breakthroughs. There aren’t any breakdowns either and we’re going to carry on talking. What we really now need to do is very urgently find some solutions which support the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, support the peace process in Northern Ireland and allow things to return to normal.
“The UK made clear its continued commitment to constructive engagement in order to find pragmatic solutions that ensure the protocol operates in a way that safeguards the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, minimises its impact on the day-to-day lives of communities in Northern Ireland, and maintains the integrity of the EU’s single market. The UK will continue to put forward detailed proposals, as we have throughout this year, and looks forward to discussing any proposals the EU may put forward. There is an urgent need for further discussions in order to make real progress, particularly to avoid disruption to critical supplies such as medicines,” he said.
Under the terms of the protocol, chilled meats, including sausages and chicken nuggets, will be prohibited from entering Northern Ireland from Britain from the end of June in the absence of a new EU-UK regulatory alignment. Britain has rejected an EU proposal for a Swiss-style veterinary agreement that would avoid 80 per cent of checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Mr Sefcovic said such an arrangement could be temporary and could end as soon as it interfered with any trade deal Britain was negotiating with other trading partners.
He dismissed a report that checks could be imposed on goods entering the rest of the EU from Ireland if Britain refused to implement the Irish Sea border required by the protocol.
“We have always shown solidarity with Ireland, and we will continue to stand by Ireland, which is the member state most affected by Brexit. This is a matter between the EU and the UK, not between the EU and Ireland. We have always said the EU’s objective is to preserve the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, as well as the integrity of the single market, including Ireland’s place in it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister challenged the UK government to “honour its commitments” on the protocol.
Speaking after a meeting of the joint UK/EU committee on the implementation of the protocol, Michelle O’Neill said she felt they were at a “crossroads”.
She said progress had been made in some areas during the meeting, including on the supply of medicines from Britain, but there was “still a way to go” on other sticking points.
"I think certainly we're probably at a crossroads point, I think that was certainly the indication from the EU side," she told a Stormont press conference.
“[The UK government] have failed to bring forward ways to implement the protocol in its entirety.”
On the issue of potential restrictions on medicine supplies into Northern Ireland from Britain when a grace period ends at the end of 2021, Ms O’Neill said: “We discussed in particular the issue of medicines, which is important that we find a solution there.
“And I think all sides are willing to do so and I’d be hopeful that there will be a solution found there, but there still is more work to be done.”
Ms O’Neill said it was made clear to the UK government that an agreement with the EU on veterinary standards, even a temporary one, would remove the need for the majority of the new checks.
Unionists in Northern Ireland have called for the scrapping of the protocol.
The Sinn Féin vice-president said she made it clear that not everyone in the region believes the protocol should be scrapped.
“I took the opportunity at the meeting to address head-on with the EU Commission and indeed with David Frost that the protocol has afforded opportunity, it does afford protection to the local business community here but it certainly affords opportunity in that we have access to both the British market and the EU market,” she added.Additional reporting: – PA