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David Frost warns EU his Article 16 trigger finger is getting itchy

Brexit minister’s conference speech was a hymn to a bright future – without NI protocol

When David Frost addressed a half-empty room at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Monday, there were almost as many European diplomats in the audience as party members. But his speech was a hymn to Britain's bright future alone now that it had slipped the bonds of the European Union.

“The long, bad dream of our EU membership is over. The British Renaissance has begun,” he said.

According to Frost's account of Brexit, the only blot on the sunlit landscape of fuel shortages, empty supermarket shelves and a looming cost of living crisis is the Northern Ireland protocol. And he made clear once again on Monday that Britain's patience with the EU is running out and that each day brings him a step closer to triggering Article 16.

In the coming days, Frost will send the EU legal texts based on his July command paper calling for sweeping changes to the protocol. The EU has not yet formally responded to the proposals but has ruled out renegotiating the agreement, and its offer of easements within the existing protocol is unlikely to be enough for Britain.


Fringe meeting

Having threatened Article 16 so often, the time may be approaching when Frost will have to trigger it. But as the leaders of Northern Ireland’s three unionist parties said at a fringe meeting in Manchester Art Gallery, that will not achieve much on its own.

For a start, triggering the article begins a fresh round of negotiations with the EU before any action can be taken. It only allows Britain to suspend parts of the protocol and it must justify why each suspension is necessary.

So Article 16 allows Frost only to suspend the protocol in a limited and specific way and the act of triggering it will almost certainly provoke legal action from the EU. If he decides to go further by tearing up the agreement to unilaterally impose the changes set out in the command paper, the EU’s response will be more dramatic, possibly including retaliation under the trade and co-operation agreement.

Even such reckless action, which could add to the supply chain problems that threaten Britain with a winter of food and fuel shortages, would not be enough to satisfy unionist leaders. As Jeffrey Donaldson stressed on Monday, they are demanding the full repudiation of the protocol through primary legislation at Westminster, and triggering Article 16 will do little to reassure them.