UK Brexit minister David Frost warned on Tuesday (12 September) that overhauling the Northern Ireland protocol was a “prerequisite” for repairing the current “fractious” relations between the UK and Brussels.
Speaking in Lisbon, in a characteristically blunt speech, Frost urged the EU to work with London to improve relations and “get back to normal”.
“With some effort of will, we could still, despite all the problems, be in a position where the poison is drawn from this issue… once and for all,” said Frost.
He also questioned why the European Commission was unwilling to reopen the protocol. “What does it cost the EU? There’s no threat to the single market,” he said.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovic is set to publish the EU’s new proposals on the protocol on Wednesday, and is expected to offer to remove most checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland and propose a mechanism that would allow the province’s politicians and business leaders to have a permanent dialogue on implementation.
The protocol, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, is particularly unpopular among the unionist community in the province. Unionists, who identify as British, complain that by imposing customs checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, the protocol has loosened its ties to the rest of the UK.
The four main unionist parties have signed a joint statement calling for the protocol to be scrapped, although officials from the Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party have told EURACTIV that they would be prepared to accept a compromise which keeps the protocol.
Elsewhere, Frost jabbed that “the profound sense of democratic estrangement” caused by the signing of the Lisbon Treaty “made the UK’s path towards exiting the European Union almost an inevitability.”
He also stated that Brexit was a “democracy project” and added that “there’s nothing wrong with populism if it means doing what people want”.
Frost also accused the EU of not wanting the UK to succeed, and said that it would require work by both sides in order to overcome the mistrust between them. If there is a trust problem it is not just for one party.
Frost added that the political balance in Northern Ireland was being “shredded” by the protocol which, he said, was designed to safeguard the peace process.
In response to EU complaints that the UK is seeking to rip up an agreement which it negotiated and ratified less than two years ago, Frost argued that the protocol had been agreed at a time when the UK didn’t know if it would have a trade agreement with the EU.
“Many of the most unusual and disproportionate provisions were agreed precisely because we didn’t know what the shape of our future trading relationship was going to be. In the face of uncertainty the original Protocol defaulted to excessive rigidity – rigidity which is now needlessly harming Northern Ireland,” he said.
The UK’s proposal to the EU is based on a ‘command paper’ published in July and would see the protocol based on an “international arbitration instead of a system of EU law ultimately policed in the court of one of the parties”.
Should talks fail to deliver a compromise, Frost said that the UK would be prepared to invoke Article 16 which suspends the application of the protocol, though he insisted that London would not do this “gratuitously or with any pleasure”.
A substantial number of MPs from the governing Conservative party have urged the Johnson government to invoke Article 16.
Frost and Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney were embroiled in a Twitter battle on Monday, after Coveney questioned whether the UK wanted a complete breakdown of relations with the EU.