At the end of the fourth week of EU-UK talks in London on resolving the impasse around the Northern Ireland Protocol, the downbeat mood has discernibly lifted.
After a meeting today (Friday 12 November) between UK Brexit minister Lord Frost and his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president welcomed “a change in tone” from Lord Frost this week. Talks will continue next week, he said.
Expectations of progress had been low, with Lord Frost warning that suspending parts of the deal by triggering Article 16 will be the “only option” if talks fail.
In a statement after talks today, Lord Frost said that “significant gaps remain to be bridged” though his preference was “to find a consensual way forward”.
Earlier this week Chancellor Rishi Sunak said Article 16 is a “safety mechanism”, but he added they were “not at that point”, according to the BBC.
“And what we should be doing and what we are doing is working constructively with European friends and partners to explore every opportunity that we have to try and resolve some of our differences around the operation of their protocol,” he said.
The protocol, agreed to by UK prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019, prevents a hard border being established on the island of Ireland by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market.
Companies moving goods from GB to NI are therefore subject to customs procedures for the first time.
Sefcovic had said this week would be “an important one”. According to the Telegraph, the EU is prepared to improve its offer to cut customs checks in Northern Ireland but needs the UK to drop its demands on the role of European judges.
The Times says Lord Frost would today attempt to de-escalate tensions by assuring Brussels that Boris Johnson does not want to trigger Article 16. Talks will enter a “new more intensive phase” a Whitehall source said.
Despite attempts to pour oil on troubled waters, Politico says that EU countries called for a “firm” response if Britain unilaterally suspends post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, warning that other trade partners, notably China, could look for signs of weakness.
They urged the Commission to prepare “robust, proportional and legally sound” proposals for retaliation, according to sources.
‘Slow drift to trade war’
Failure of talks and a drift to a trade war would play out slowly, Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian yesterday (Thursday 11 November).
The triggering of Article 16 would be followed by a one-month cooling-off period and then more talks, Toynbee wrote.
Rescinding the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement – signed in December 2020 – would take a year, although a ‘go slow’ at French ports could kick in quicker “with increasingly thorough lorry checks, causing queues halfway up the country”.