EU warns of ‘serious consequences’ if UK deploys article 16

Engagements with Britain over Northern Ireland proposals ‘disappointing ’ – Sefcovic

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic following a meeting with Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost. Photograph: Getty

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic following a meeting with Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost. Photograph: Getty


“Serious consequences” would follow if Britain chooses to use the sensitive article 16 clause to suspend post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has warned.

After talks with Britain’s Brexit chief negotiator David Frost in Brussels, Mr Sefcovic said engagement with London had been “disappointing”. He urged British interlocutors to engage “sincerely” with European Union proposals to slash checks to ease implementation of the deal for the North.

It comes amid intensifying speculation that the British government was moving towards using the article 16 clause to unilaterally suspend parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, which creates a trade border in the Irish Sea so it is avoided on the island of Ireland. Pressure is also mounting from EU member states on the commission to prepare contingency plans, including potential retaliatory trade measures.

The EU’s proposals would create an “express lane” for goods being exported from Britain to Northern Ireland, “cut in half” customs checks and reduce animal and food safety inspections by as much as 80 per cent, said Mr Sefcovic.

“It would result in strengthened opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland and this was a big move by us. But until today we have seen no move at all from the UK side. I find this disappointing. And once again, I urge the UK government to engage with us sincerely,” said Mr Sefcovic after the talks.

“Let there be no doubt that triggering article 16 to seek the negotiation of the protocol would have serious consequences,” he warned. “Serious for Northern Ireland, as it would lead to instability and unpredictability, and serious also for the EU-UK relations in general, as it as it would mean a rejection of EU efforts to find a consensual solution to the implementation of the protocol.”

Mr Sefcovic is set to travel to London for further talks next Friday and said that the coming week would be “important”. He vowed to do “whatever it takes” to ensure an uninterrupted supply of medicines into Northern Ireland, reiterating EU plans to change the rules to ease movement of the drugs.

Britain has pushed for the role of the European Court of Justice to be removed from Northern Ireland’s arrangements, something that the EU has said is a base condition for inclusion within the single market.

As he entered the talks in Brussels, Lord Frost warned that time is running out. “We need to make progress soon. Honestly, the gap between us is is still quite significant,” he said. “We’re not going to trigger article 16 today, but article 16 is very much on the table and has been since July.”

A British government spokesman said after the meeting that Lord Frost had set out Britain’s assessment of the negotiations so far to Mr Sefcovic.

“He underlined that progress had been limited and that the EU’s proposals did not currently deal effectively with the fundamental difficulties in the way the protocol was operating. He added that, in the UK view, these gaps could still be bridged through further intensive discussions. He underlined that the UK’s preference was still to find a consensual solution that protected the Belfast Agreement and the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Fisheries policy

The spokesman said the two men also had a short discussion of fisheries policy. Lord Frost’s meeting with French Europe minister Clement Beaune on Thursday failed to resolve the dispute between the two countries about fishing rights.

Mr Beaune suggested after that meeting that progress was being made but the British spokesman said on Friday that Britain believe its licensing policy was in compliance with its post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

“Lord Frost reiterated that the UK had licensed 98 per cent of EU vessels seeking to fish in UK waters, representing almost 1,700 vessels, in line with its obligations under the Trade and Co-operation Agreement [TCA]. He repeated that vessels must provide the necessary evidence of historic fishing activity required by the TCA in order to receive a licence,” he said.