EU threatens trade war over NI Protocol - but retailers warn that time is running out
The EU has threatened to launch a trade war against Britain if it fails to implement checks on goods entering Northern Ireland under the terms of the Brexit “divorce” settlement.
After talks in London ended without a breakthrough, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said patience with the UK was wearing “very, very thin”.
His warning came after Brexit Minister Lord Frost refused to rule out the prospect that the UK could unilaterally delay imposing checks on British-made sausages and other chilled meats due to come into force at the end of the month.
Following three-and-a-half hours of discussions at Admiralty House, Lord Frost accused Brussels of adopting an “extremely purist” approach to the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In a press conference afterwards, Mr Sefcovic insisted the EU has shown “enormous patience” in the face of “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the UK’s compliance with the agreement.
He said that any further backtracking will be met with a resolute response.
“Of course, as you would understand, the fact that I mentioned that we are at a crossroads means that our patience really is wearing very, very thin, and therefore we have to assess all options we have at our disposal,” he said.
“I was talking about the legal action, I was talking about arbitration, and of course I’m talking about the cross-retaliation.”
His warning came as President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the US does not want to see any action that would put at risk the Northern Ireland peace process, which the Protocol is designed to protect.
Ahead of Mr Biden’s meeting with Mr Johnson on Thursday, before the G7 summit in Cornwall, Mr Sullivan said it is up to the two sides to find an agreed way forward.
“President Biden believes and has said that the Northern Ireland Protocol, as part of the agreement between the UK and the European Union, is critical to ensuring that the spirit, promise and future of the Good Friday Agreement is protected,” Mr Sullivan told the BBC.
“That being said, of course the UK and EU need to work out the specifics and the modalities on that, need to find some way to proceed that works both for the EU and the UK.
“But whatever way they find to proceed must, at its core, fundamentally protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and not imperil that.”
Responding to the lack of progress at the Joint Committee meeting, Aodhán Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said: “It is disappointing that yet another Joint Committee meeting between the EU and UK has ended without substantial progress.
“For the retail industry and for households across Northern Ireland, the clock is counting down to the end of the grace period for products of animal origin. We need immediate solutions to keep goods flowing now and we need a breathing space so that the UK Government and the EU can, in the longer term, find a workable solution that allows NI retailers to continue to give households the choice and affordability they need.
“This requires pragmatic controls which satisfy the EU’s concerns, recognises the deeply integrated GB-NI supply chains, and can be introduced in a workable manner over a sensible time frame. The solutions are there. What we need now it the political will on both sides to see them delivered.”
DUP Leader Edwin Poots responded that the time for talking about the Protocol problems has passed and that it is now time for action.
“The engagement between Lord Frost and Maros Sefcovic has been described as ‘frank’ but more talking is not what Northern Ireland needs,” he said. “We need the NI Protocol to be removed.
“The Protocol has been a disaster both politically and economically. Even the Protocol’s early chief cheerleaders in Northern Ireland who initially called for its ‘rigorous implementation’ are now searching for the reverse gear.
“Animals with full traceability pose no threat to the Single Market. Checks on pets and guide dogs for diseases that have not been found in the British Isles since 1922 were equally illogical which is why I have stepped in to stop them. “Crippling bureaucracy on our medicines is downright reckless.
“The Protocol was foisted on Northern Ireland against our will and means there are two and a half times more checks at our ports than at Rotterdam, one of the world’s largest ports. It has resulted in 15,000 checks per week meanwhile we have neither the infrastructure nor staff to meet the EU’s demands.”
He added that he would be meeting Maros Sefcovic next week.
“If Brussels is deaf to the problems, then our own government must act unilaterally to protect Northern Ireland.”
UUP leader Doug Beattie responded that the protocol has created very clear issues for Northern Ireland which need to be dealt with.
“It `s long past time that they called a halt to the war of words and got the issues sorted, otherwise Northern Ireland will continue to be collateral damage,” he said.
TUV leader Jim Allister responded: “The fundamental for me when it comes to whatever is proposed is does it still leave Northern Ireland alone as part of the UK in a foreign single market for goods? Does it leave us subject to a foreign customs code and a foreign VAT regime? Is all this still overseen by foreign laws and adjudicated upon by a foreign court? As long as any arrangement does any of those things then it is not a settlement. It is not acceptable. It involves a transfer in sovereignty and a change in constitutional status.”
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