Britain ramps up pressure for replacement of NI protocol

EU has behaved badly towards Britain since Brexit, claims chief negotiator David Frost

David Frost's speech in Lisbon, delivered with his characteristic, disarming diffidence, toughened up his demand for the Northern Ireland protocol to be replaced and repeated his ritual threat to invoke Article 16.

Speaking to a handful of diplomats and reporters, he said the EU had behaved badly towards Britain since Brexit, not allowing it to access programmes it had left and taking legal action over breaches of the agreement he negotiated in 2019.

“And overall, we are constantly faced with generalised accusations that can’t be trusted and are not a reasonable international actor,” he said.

The European Commission is expected on Wednesday to offer far-reaching proposals to address the issues that have caused practical problems for people and businesses in Northern Ireland. But it will do so within the framework of the protocol, even if that involves an elastic interpretation of it and some exceptions and exemptions.


In demanding a "new protocol", Frost is seeking to dismantle the framework first sketched out by British prime minister Boris Johnson and then taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Wirral almost exactly two years ago. This enabled Northern Ireland to remain within the EU's regulatory system for goods and subject to EU customs rules while remaining in the United Kingdom's customs area.

Fighting talk

Because some EU rules remain in force, the European Court of Justice has a role in determining whether they are being complied with. Frost says this is an unusual arrangement, agreed by Britain under difficult domestic circumstances and that it should be replaced by an arbitration system similar to that of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA).

Despite his fighting talk, Frost is preparing to enter three weeks of negotiations with the commission, promising to consider Wednesday’s proposals seriously. For its part, the commission has made clear that its proposals are not a take it or leave it offer but the basis for a negotiation.

Frost said the proposals sounded interesting, adding “We’ll talk about it, even if I fear it may not do the job first round”.

This could imply a two-stage negotiation process, with the second starting after Frost suspends parts of the protocol unilaterally by triggering Article 16.

Asked about the risk of a trade war if the EU retaliated under the TCA rather than simply within the terms of the protocol, Frost said such action would not make the situation any better. The asymmetric nature of the relationship means that if the dispute escalates, the EU has numerous ways to make life difficult for Britain.

Once Frost triggers Article 16, he will have pulled almost the only lever left to him.