UK warns ‘big gap’ with EU despite NI protocol offer

Issue of border checks again on table if United Kingdom fails to abide by pact

 David Frost: ‘I think the EU has definitely made an effort in pushing beyond where they typically go in these areas and we’re quite encouraged by that.’  Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

David Frost: ‘I think the EU has definitely made an effort in pushing beyond where they typically go in these areas and we’re quite encouraged by that.’ Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

Britain has warned a “big gap” remains between its position and that of the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol as Brexit minister David Frost met his European Commission counterpart Maros Sefcovic in Brussels for talks.

The meeting came after the Commission unveiled a package of proposals it said would do away with 80 per cent of checks on goods from Britain destined for supermarket shelves in the North and halve customs checks.

The ideas were welcomed by industry figures as going further than what they could have hoped, but the London government indicated it would stick to its demand that the oversight of the European Court of Justice be removed, something that is a red line for the European Union.

“I think the EU has definitely made an effort in pushing beyond where they typically go in these areas and we’re quite encouraged by that. But obviously there is still quite a big gap. And that’s what we’ve got to work through today and in the future,” Mr Frost said as he arrived in Brussels for the talks.

“The governance arrangements don’t work. We need to take the court out of the system as it is now and we need to find a better way forward,” he added.

“Our position is clear, as it always has been, as set out in the command paper,” he said. It was a reference to a July document in which Britain indicated it was unhappy with the ECJ’s position as authority of last resort over the regulations that keep Northern Ireland within the Single Market for goods, avoiding a hard border with the Republic.

The talks were overshadowed by the killing of a Conservative MP in England, with neither side making a statement after they concluded. Discussions are expected to continue for some weeks or months, with the EU expressing hope that the matter can be resolved by the end of the year.

EU diplomats emphasise the focus for now is on trying to work constructively and find solutions. But a group of member states have pressed the Commission to prepare for the possibility that a fix will not be found and Britain will use the Article 16 clause to suspend the application of the Protocol.

Germany, France, the Netherlands, and six other member states this week expressed support for contingency planning for this, which would include working out the options available, such as retaliatory trade tariffs. Work is understood to be ongoing.

If Britain refuses to abide by the agreement, the conundrum over where to place border checks will be raised again, with the EU forced to choose between imposing them somewhere that will disadvantage Ireland or allowing unsecured goods into the Single Market.

Speaking before the talks, an EU official said the proposals were “a call for the UK to be realistic in its demands, to focus on providing certainty, stability and predictability in Northern Ireland, rather than focus on these high-level constitutional issues.”

“We’re hoping for the best but of course preparing for the worst. And of course what I’m referring to is the fact that this is ultimately about Ireland’s place in the Single Market,” the official said. “We can’t exclude that the UK will nevertheless use Article 16.”

Diplomats describe continuing total solidarity with Ireland over the issue. But some member states feel it is important for the EU not to be seen to capitulate to British brinkmanship and rule-breaking, as this would have an impact in how seriously the EU is taken in its dealings with other difficult non-members of the union.