Little progress is being made towards breaking the impasse with the EU on the customs procedures for goods travelling to Northern Ireland and time is running out, the UK’s Brexit minister David Frost admitted on Wednesday (16 June), adding that London was “keeping all options open”.
“Our frustration … is that we’re not getting a lot of traction, and we feel we have put in a lot of ideas and we haven’t had very much back to help move these discussions forward, and meanwhile … time is running out,” Frost told lawmakers on the UK parliament’s Northern Ireland committee.
While the EU introduced customs checks on all goods entering the single market as soon as the UK formally left the bloc on 1 January, London unilaterally extended a grace period waiving border checks on some goods earlier this year, prompting the EU to start legal proceedings.
Since then, technical talks between EU and UK officials on the implementation of the protocol have been ongoing for several months.
Talks with European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič last week broke up without a breakthrough. However, UK officials complain that despite tabling around twelve different proposals, the European Commission has not come back with a response.
Grace periods on chilled meats will end on 30 June, raising the prospects of empty supermarket shelves across the UK should an agreement not be reached.
Although Frost told the committee that he had been responsible for negotiating the protocol, which introduces customs checks on goods travelling from Britain to the island of Ireland, he said that “the protocol is not being implemented as we intended as negotiators”.
In the meantime, the UK is also pointing to the unhappiness of the unionist community, which wants Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, with the protocol.
Last month, Arlene Foster was replaced as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, in large part because of disquiet over her support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s stance during the Brexit process.
EU officials and several member states, including France, say the protocol cannot be reopened and must be implemented by the UK.
For his part, Frost described the protocol as “a very delicate set of arrangements with a lot of loose ends” and urged the EU executive to show the same “spirit of good will” as it had during the Brexit negotiations.
The UK argues that the protocol was intended to minimise disruption to lives in Northern Ireland as well as protect the EU’s single market.
The Commission contends that by refusing to conduct customs checks, the UK is in breach of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that came into force in January.
“Our position is that we would like to find negotiated agreements that … bring it back to the sort of light-touch agreement that we thought we were agreeing,” said Frost.
The Brexit minister again warned that Johnson’s government would keep all options open, a hint that the UK might be prepared to suspend the protocol.
“There comes a point where the unsatisfactoriness of the current situation and the attempts to operate it contributes to the uncertainty and instability,” he said.
“So obviously, if we judge that’s the situation, then we look at the range of options that might bring further stability.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]