Frost admits UK and EU are ‘not making much progress’ on Brexit row
The UK has admitted that little progress has been made in efforts to avoid a “sausage war” trade dispute with the European Union.
Brexit minister Lord Frost again threatened to suspend parts of the Brexit deal covering Northern Ireland in order to reduce barriers to trade across the Irish Sea, something that could trigger a trade war with Brussels.
The two sides are locked in a dispute over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit divorce deal aimed at avoiding a hard border with Ireland.
Under the terms of the deal, deliveries of chilled meats – including sausages and burgers – could be effectively banned from crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland at the end of the month.
We’d prefer to find negotiated ways forwards if we can
The UK is considering unilaterally extending the grace period covering sausage shipments, something that Brussels has warned could trigger a retaliation.
Lord Frost told MPs that “all options remain on the table” in the row with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“We’d prefer to find negotiated ways forwards if we can,” he said.
“If that’s not possible, obviously other options remain on the table, as the PM said over the weekend.”
The row dominated Boris Johnson’s talks with European Union leaders at the G7 summit, with the Prime Minister insisting he will do whatever it takes to keep goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Asked about the uncertainty the row is causing for businesses, Lord Frost said “there comes a point where the unsatisfactoriness of the current situation and the attempts to operate it contributes to the uncertainty and instability”.
“And then a responsible effort to bring stability and certainty can improve the situation rather than make it more difficult,” he said.
“So obviously if we judge that’s the situation then we look at the range of options that might bring further stability.”
Lord Frost has been holding talks with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on the issue and frequent meetings have also taken place between officials from the two sides.
The peer told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee “there are discussions going on the whole time” with Brussels.
“It’s happening all the time, it’s just that we are not making much progress despite all the ideas that we have put in,” he said.
The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods to ensure trade flows smoothly across the border with Ireland.
But in order to make sure products sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland comply with the rules, there are checks when they cross the Irish Sea.
The ban on chilled meats is because the UK is a “third country” and the EU does not allow imports of those products from outside the bloc.
Lord Frost acknowledged the issue has become more difficult because of the “weakening of consent” for the protocol arrangements in unionist groups.
“The difficulty that we have had since the start of the year, or at least the end of January, is there has been a very visible weakening of consent in one community in Northern Ireland for the arrangements in the protocol and that’s obviously produced instability and uncertainty,” he said.
The Prime Minister has been very clear that all options are on the table
DUP MP Ian Paisley asked Lord Frost if the Government would consider “unilaterally scrapping” the protocol.
“So, what are the options? The Government says everything is on the table; are you seriously going to unilaterally scrap it?” he asked.
“If these operations can’t be sustained, are you going to invoke Article 16? And, if so, what is the timeline for taking action to resolve it, because this can’t go on much longer before something gives and I am seriously worried about the fabric of our society at this point.”
Lord Frost replied: “The Prime Minister has been very clear that all options are on the table. He has said several times we will do whatever is necessary, and that is the view that is held across Government because we are extremely concerned about the situation.”
He added that he senses there is a “slight misunderstanding” within the EU over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
It followed reports that French President Emmanuel Macron had said to Mr Johnson at the G7 summit that Northern Ireland is not part of the UK.
Lord Frost said: “I think we’ve sensed that this sort of slight misunderstanding about the status of Northern Ireland has been around for some time, possibly quite a long time.
“It is obviously rather concerning if people see things in that way; it doesn’t seem to us to be consistent with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which are very clear on that.”