The European Union should consider changing its food safety rules to accommodate British demands if it wants the Northern Ireland protocol to work, Brexit minister David Frost has told MPs. Lord Frost told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the EU was applying sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules meant for "global third party trade" to the very different circumstances of Northern Ireland.
“They could change their rules in the context of Northern Ireland if they wanted to,” he said.
“In the circumstances where the politics are so delicate, and we all say we are trying to support the Good Friday Agreement, and take the EU on their word on that, it would seem sensible to look at these things in a more reasonable way.”
Lord Frost acknowledged that the protocol he negotiated with the EU in 2019 states that the EU’s universal customs code should apply to Northern Ireland.
But, he said, the agreement was not being applied in the way it was intended by the negotiators and the EU was ignoring its requirement that checks and controls in ports in the North should be minimised.
He accused the EU of taking a purist approach to the movement of chilled meats including sausages from Great Britain to Northern Ireland after a grace period ends at the end of this month.
“We have asked and suggested to the EU that the right way forward would be to agree to extend the grace period, at least for a bit, to provide a bit of a breathing space for the current discussions to continue and try and find solutions.
“I still hold out some hope that they might agree to that because it seems a very narrow point to take such a purist view about. We are not having much progress but there is a little bit of time left before that,” he said.
“It would seem to me a pity to make this negotiation, that is already pretty complex and tense, more so by being very purist about that, but there we are.”
Lord Frost repeated the British government’s threat to take further unilateral action, including a suspension of the protocol by triggering Article 16, if the EU did not agree to bend the rules.
British prime minister Boris Johnson issued the same warning during prime minister's questions later, as did Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis answering questions from MPs.
“If we get the protocol to work in a proper, flexible, pragmatic way, it creates an opportunity for Northern Ireland. But we also have to be cognisant of the fact that, at the moment, it is causing real disruption and real problems for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, across the whole community, and it has an impact on people’s sense of identity in the Unionist community,” Mr Lewis said.
"We have to accept that, respond to it and deal with the protocol in a pragmatic way. That is why I think it is so important that the EU engages with people in Northern Ireland to get a real understanding of why Northern Ireland is such an important part of our United Kingdom. "