UK resumes sabre rattling with EU, threatens to suspend NI protocol

Brexit minister Liz Truss on Sunday resumed the UK government’s sabre rattling with Brussels on Sunday, warning that she was prepared to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, and potentially collapse the UK’s trade pact with the EU. [EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER]

Brexit minister Liz Truss on Sunday (9 January) resumed the UK government’s sabre rattling with Brussels, warning that she was prepared to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, and potentially collapse the UK’s trade pact with the EU.

“I want a negotiated solution, but if we have to use legitimate provisions including Article 16, I am willing to do that,” Truss wrote in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

“This safeguard clause was explicitly designed – and agreed to by all sides – to ease acute problems because of the sensitivity of the issues at play,” she added.

The EU has warned that invoking Article 16 could lead to the suspension of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the UK, which governs relations between the two sides.

Truss assumed responsibility for post-Brexit relations with the EU following the resignation of Brexit minister David Frost last month. Frost stood down saying that he could not support the Johnson government’s COVID restrictions and plans to increase taxes.

“I will not sign up to anything which sees the people of Northern Ireland unable to benefit from the same decisions on taxation and spending as the rest of the UK, or which still sees goods moving within our own country being subject to checks,” she said.

Talks between EU and UK officials on the protocol will resume this week, and Truss will hold her first discussions with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič.

The Foreign Secretary’s intervention is primarily for domestic consumption, with the governing Conservative party keen for another battle with the EU after several months of growing public discontent with Boris Johnson’s government.

Truss’s remarks were given short shift by the EU’s chief diplomat in London.

“We’ve heard this before from the government, so we’re not surprised. We are not too impressed,” the EU’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, told Sky News.

“Where we are focused on is trying to find solutions for difficulties in the implementation of the protocol,” he added.

The UK’s first year of life outside the EU’s single market in 2021 saw a series of rows with the European Commission ranging from fisheries, and the status of the EU’s diplomatic mission in London, to the protocol, a major bone of contention throughout the Brexit process.

Officials have been in talks for the past six months with a view to brokering a compromise on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol after the UK complained that businesses were facing onerous new bureaucratic requirements, supply chain problems, and that the protocol risked undermining political stability in Northern Ireland.

The protocol introduced customs checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in order to avoid a hard customs border on the island of Ireland.

At the end of last year, the Commission moved to ensure that medicines will continue to be available in Northern Ireland at the same time as in the rest of the UK, and that medicines entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will not need additional labelling. However, little progress has been made on other issues of contention, such as customs checks on a range of goods, and the role of the European Court of Justice in settling disputes.

Both sides view the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May as a key deadline. The polls could see the Irish republican party Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in the devolved government for the first time.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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