UK tells EU to ‘stay calm’ amid Brexit spat
The UK urged the European Union to remain “calm” in the escalating dispute over post-Brexit Northern Ireland, as the two sides continue to exchange threats that could yet lead to an all-out trade war.
“I gently suggest that our European friends should stay calm and keep things in proportion,” UK Brexit minister David Frost said in Parliament Wednesday. He was speaking after reports the EU is considering terminating its free-trade deal with the UK if Boris Johnson’s government follows through on its threat to unilaterally suspend part of the post-Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland.
If Britain made such a move, “we would set our case with confidence and why it was wholly consistent with our legal obligations,” Frost said, adding that the UK is not yet ready to walk away from talks with the bloc.
Britain and the EU are currently locked in a fresh round of talks over their testy post-Brexit relationship, with the UK calling for a major overhaul of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol contained in the wider divorce deal. If the EU doesn’t agree to a re-write, Britain said it will invoke Article 16, which allows for limited suspensions of the deal to address disruption to trade.
The EU is preparing for the UK to trigger Article 16, an EU diplomat said, describing closed-door discussions on Wednesday. The diplomat said there is a consensus among member nations that such an action would be countered by a clear European response.
Frost told the House of Lords that if the EU responded by suspending the post-Brexit trade deal, it would be a “massive and disproportionate retaliation.”
“They seem to be claiming it would be entirely unreasonable for the British government, uniquely, to use these wholly legitimate safeguard provisions in the treaty designed precisely to deal with situations like the current one,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadker warned that triggering Article 16 would not lead to the UK securing a better deal, but would mean potential retaliatory action from the bloc.
Later, Irish PM Micheal Martin told parliament in Dublin the EU shouldn’t assume the UK will take that step, which he said would disrupt Northern Ireland’s access to the bloc’s single market in the short term.
Under the protocol, both sides agreed to an effective customs border in the Irish Sea, with Northern Ireland continuing to follow EU single market rules to avoid creating a hard border on the island of Ireland following Brexit. It means that goods moving into Northern Ireland from Britain are subject to customs checks if they are at risk of being later moved into the EU.
But the settlement has angered unionists in Northern Ireland, while Johnson’s government also blames it for disruption the UK’s own internal market. It has long said that the conditions for invoking Article 16, which allows either side to take action which addresses “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” or “diversion of trade,” have been met.
One option for the UK would be to use Article 16 to suspend all customs checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, arguing that this is the only way to stop the diversion of trade caused by the protocol.
That would leave the EU facing some awkward options:
Erect a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, risking a major inflammation of tensions. Placing a border between Ireland and France, effectively cutting off an EU member state. Taking no action at all, leaving its external border open to smuggling while letting Johnson argue that checks aren’t needed. Frost will discuss the issue in London on Friday with his EU counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, who has said this week would be “an important one.”
The UK minister said talks with the EU still had time to run, and there are further possibilities to consider in the negotiations.
“I will certainly not give up on this process,” he said. “There is more to do.”
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