NI protocol: EU talks have not dealt with key issue, says Frost
British minister blames bloc’s member states for lack of progress on the issue
British minister David Frost has told MPs that negotiations with Brussels have not yet dealt with the heart of the problem with the Northern Ireland protocol. Photograph: Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Lord Frost linked the timetable for progress in the talks on the protocol, which is part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement and gave the North a special trading status, with the North’s marching season, saying that there was a “real life timetable” in Northern Ireland which should be taken into account. However, he said the Twelfth of July was not a hard deadline for reaching agreement.
“Coronavirus restrictions are coming to an end. We all know that the late spring and summer in Northern Ireland can be turbulent, some dates are significant in that and we have to take that reality into account,” he told the House of Commons EU scrutiny committee on Monday.
“I would like to feel that we would be making progress with the EU in good time before that date.”
Britain and the EU are in discussions about how to implement the protocol in a way that causes the minimum disruption to businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland. Britain has already unilaterally extended grace periods for some checks on goods moving from Britain to the North, triggering legal action from the EU.
London has told Brussels it is willing to introduce new customs checks on food products crossing the Irish Sea in four stages, starting in October with fresh meat products. Checks on dairy products, plants and wine would start next January, with checks on fruit and vegetables, pet food and other food products starting later in 2022.
Lord Frost said he enjoyed a good relationship with European Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic, his EU opposite number in negotiations about the protocol, and blamed EU member states for lack of progress in the talks.
“At the moment, we are talking to the [European] Commission about the range of practical issues that have arisen from trying to operate the protocol. I would say many of those issues don’t themselves go to the heart of the problems but we are talking to them and trying to find solutions. There’s a bit of momentum in that discussion, it’s not very productive and we’ll have to see how far we can take it,” he said.
“We need a sensible discussion about the genuine risk and the genuine problems that are produced by excessive process. That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable discussion to have. But it’s got to be a discussion that isn’t about superficialities but gets to the heart of the difficulties. And we haven’t had that discussion yet unfortunately.”
Lord Frost told the committee that Britain would consider all options on the protocol, including using article 16 to suspend it, but he said he hoped the EU would not take any action in response.
“Article 16 does allow for such countermeasures. Obviously, no decision has been taken on any of these next steps, although as I said we continue to consider all the options. I like to think that if we were to take measures of any kind that support the stability of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement in Northern Ireland that the EU would not make that more difficult by reacting to it,” he said.
On Monday, however, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the Government was “strongly of the view that this is an agreement that has been signed up to by the UK government and it needs to honour that agreement with all of us”.
He described the protocol as the best outcome “particularly for Northern Ireland in the context of continuing to have access to the European market – which I think from a foreign direct investment perspective will be very advantageous”. He made the comments during a speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs.
Mr Martin also warned of “a tendency for petty disputes being elevated to suit domestic political consumption”.
However, acknowledging unionist concerns on the protocol, Mr Martin added: “We have to facilitate smooth movement of goods from the UK to Northern Ireland as well.”