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Britain and EU are both sliding into place on a dangerous track amid deep rift

London Letter: The EU would view the UK’s use of article 16 as particularly aggressive

The tragedy in the English Channel on Wednesday that saw 27 people drown trying to seek asylum has highlighted the necessity of co-operation between Britain and its European neighbours. But the British government's first instinct was to blame the French, with home secretary Priti Patel agreeing with fellow Conservative Robert Jenrick that "it is within the gift of the president of France to bring this to an end now".

Britain has taken the same approach in its dispute with France over post-Brexit fishing rights, prompting French fisherman to threaten to block British freight movements in the Channel Tunnel and the port of Calais on Friday.

"This is our demonstration of the quality and ability of professional fishermen to mobilise in response to the UK's provocative, contemptuous and humiliating attitude towards them," said Gerard Romiti, president of National Maritime Fisheries Committee.

The deepest rift between Britain and its European neighbours remains that over the Northern Ireland protocol and Friday's meeting in London between David Frost and Maros Sefcovic is unlikely to produce a breakthrough. Both sides expect to carry on talking in December and into the new year but neither is confident that the negotiations will be successful.

Britain will not trigger article 16 before Christmas but when Frost says the option remains on the table, he means it. The Europeans are serious too when they warn that such a move will invite retaliation, possibly up to the full revocation of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA).

Throughout the entire Brexit process, Britain and the EU have struggled to read one another’s intentions, often assuming the other side was bluffing when they were in earnest. The challenge is greater than ever now because neither London nor Brussels have themselves decided what to do next.

After all the warnings from European politicians, it would be difficult for the EU not to respond decisively to such a move

It is too late for Frost to use article 16 simply to reset the negotiations and increase pressure on the EU to agree to his demands for the elimination of most checks and procedures on goods crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland, removing the European Court of Justice’s oversight role over the protocol and changes to the rules on state aid. Sefcovic and other senior European figures have made clear that the EU’s response will be much more robust than the legal proceedings launched (and suspended) after earlier British unilateral actions.

Surprise

British ministers were taken by surprise on Wednesday when the coalition agreement made by Germany’s new government included a similar warning.

“We insist on full compliance with the agreements that have been adopted, in particular with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement. In the event of non-compliance with the agreed standards and procedures, we support the consistent application of all agreed measures and countermeasures,” it said.

If Britain does trigger article 16 next year it will be to impose unilaterally its own proposals for managing the flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, including an "honesty box" system for firms to declare if their goods are destined to cross the Border into the EU single market. Article 16 is now seen in Europe as the nuclear option and this would be viewed as a particularly aggressive exercise of it.

After all the warnings from European politicians, including the clause in the German coalition agreement, it would be difficult for the EU not to respond decisively to such a move. France, which takes over the EU presidency in January, knows better than most member states how to design measures that will create the greatest discomfort for Britain and its government.

A discussion among EU ambassadors about possible countermeasures was postponed earlier this month and as long as nothing is decided, British ministers will remain unconvinced that European capitals have the stomach for a trade war over the protocol. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson will continue to keep the Europeans guessing about what he plans to do about the protocol, not least because he has yet to decide himself.

Amid the uncertainty and mutual mistrust, the two sides are sliding heavily into place on a dangerous track, the engines are growing louder and the wheels will soon begin to turn.