The British Brexit minister, Lord David Frost, has called on Brussels to “stay calm and keep things in perspective” as the UK continues to make threats to suspend parts of the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.
The UK seeks to rewrite the agreement’s protocol for Northern Ireland, which left the region in the EU’s internal market for goods to prevent the return of a north-south trade border to the island of Ireland.
The two parties have been at loggerheads for months over post-Brexit trade rules for the region, with the UK threatening to activate Article 16, the safeguard clause that both sides can use if they believe the arrangement is “serious economic, social “caused. or environmental problems ”or the“ diversion of trade ”.
After undecided conversations last week Maros Sefcovic, EU Brexit negotiator, warned of “serious consequences” if the UK carried out its threats. This could include the slowdown in trade across the Channel with more intensive customs and health investigations, or even the termination of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which allows tariff- and quota-free trade in goods between the EU and the UK.
Sefcovic met with EU ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss possible retaliation measures that could be taken if Article 16 is implemented. The two parties will meet on Friday for a fourth round of talks.
During a visit to Washington DC, also on Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, said she and US President Joe Biden shared the view that the retention of the withdrawal agreement and compliance with Northern Ireland- protocol is important for peace and stability on the island of Ireland.
The EU has shown the “greatest flexibility” within the parameters of the protocol, she said, adding “it is important to stick to what we have agreed and signed together”.
Speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, Frost said to activate Article 16 to suspend some parts of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the UK’s “only option” if negotiations failed.
He said Brussels had suggested that the UK could only take this action at the cost of “massive and disproportionate retaliation”. He added: “I softly suggest that our European friends should remain calm and keep things in proportion.
“They can remind themselves that no government and no country has a greater interest in stability and security in Northern Ireland in the Belfast Agreement than we do.”
Frost has said since July that the threshold has already been reached to justify the use of Article 16 due to the economic and political disruption caused by the protocol.
But in an apparent softening of his tone, Frost insisted that talks continue between the two sides and implied that the UK is still weeks away from unilaterally suspending parts of the protocol.
“There is still a real opportunity to turn away from confrontation to move beyond these current problems and put in place a new and better equilibrium,” Frost told his peers.
He added: “There is more to do and I will certainly not give up on this process unless and until it is completely clear that nothing more can be done. We are definitely not there yet. However, if we reach that point in time, the Article 16 precautionary measures will be our only option. “
In a warning shot at the EU, he continued: “If the EU were to choose to respond in an excessive manner, and decide to exacerbate the problems in Northern Ireland rather than reduce them, it is obviously a matter for them. “
His remarks came as four senior Democratic congressmen in Washington a joint statement published warns that the UK’s threat to activate Article 16 is “dangerous”.
“By threatening to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the United Kingdom is threatening not only to destabilize trade relations, but also that hard-earned peace. “We call on the UK to abandon this dangerous path, and to commit to the full implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol,” they said.