The EU has warned that its patience is wearing thin over Britain's confrontational approach to the Northern Ireland protocol, and that it would consider using "all tools" to ensure that the agreement is implemented.
The EU is preparing to offer derogations from its rules to ease some problems at the Irish Sea border but it has ruled out any changes to the protocol itself.
“The EU has been patient but the EU’s patience is wearing thin. If this continues we will have to consider all the tools, all the options, that are available,” an EU official said.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic and Brexit minister David Frost will meet in London on Wednesday in the joint committee that oversees the protocol's implementation. Writing in the Financial Times over the weekend, Lord Frost called for more pragmatism and "common sense" from the EU in its approach to the protocol.
“The EU needs a new playbook for dealing with neighbours, one that involves pragmatic solutions between friends, not the imposition of one side’s rules on the other and legal purism.”
The EU is preparing to offer derogations to ensure that there can be no obstacle to the supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and to ease the movement of guide dogs. However, Brussels complains that Britain has halted work on building border control posts at Northern Ireland ports and of failing to establish information systems to ensure that unauthorised goods from Britain do not move into the Republic.
The EU has already initiated legal action against Britain for unilaterally extending grace periods for some checks at ports in Northern Ireland, and it could refer other breaches to arbitration, with the possibility of financial penalties or the suspension of parts of the withdrawal agreement.
The EU can also retaliate under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which allows it to take action including the imposition of tariffs on British goods prior to arbitration.
Lord Frost, who negotiated the protocol on behalf of the British government, said in the Financial Times that he had not anticipated its consequences.
“We underestimated the effect of the protocol on goods movements to Northern Ireland, with some suppliers in Great Britain simply not sending their products because of the time-consuming paperwork required. We’ve seen manufacturers of medicines cutting supply. And there is less choice on supermarket shelves for consumers,” he wrote.
Gavin Barwell, who played a central role in Brexit negotiations as Theresa May’s chief-of-staff, cast doubt on Lord Frost’s assertion that he did not understand what he had signed Britain up to.
“It’s tempting to believe that – despite all the warnings – the government ‘underestimated the effect of the protocol’, but I’m pretty sure it’s not true. They knew it was a bad deal but agreed it to get Brexit done, intending to wriggle out of it later,” he wrote.
“The EU has no intention of letting the UK wriggle out of what it signed up to, so we should expect UK/EU relations to get worse before they get better.”