'We cannot go on as we are': EU to 'find new path' over Northern Ireland

21 July 2021, 14:06 | Updated: 21 July 2021, 16:02

The UK and EU have clashed over the Northern Ireland protocol
The UK and EU have clashed over the Northern Ireland protocol. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

"We cannot go on as we are," with Brexit arrangements, a senior politician has warned amid tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Lord David Frost, who was instrumental in the negotiations in leaving the European Union, said the status quo has led to "societal instability" in the province and "significant disruption" to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Under the terms of the Brexit deal, Northern Ireland must stick to EU rules on goods which has led to concerns that, despite a grace period allowing traders to adapt to the new regime, products like sausages may not be permitted to be sent to Ulster from Britain.

The protocol is used to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland but there are worries in unionist communities that it has cut Northern Ireland off from Britain.

Read more: Brexit: EU warns it will act 'firmly' to ensure Northern Ireland Protocol is followed

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Lord Frost said there has been progress in talks with the European Union but, "overall, those discussions have not got to the heart of the problem".

But European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic rejected the idea of re-negotiating the protocol.

"Put very simply, we cannot go on as we are," Lord Frost told peers.

"We have therefore had to consider all our options. In particular, we have looked carefully at the safeguards provided by Article 16 of the Protocol."

That would allow the Government to suspend parts of the deal to handle "significant societal and economic difficulties" but could prove controversial.

Read more: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson: PM hasn't delivered Brexit promises to Northern Ireland

The Government wants:

  • An "evidence-based and targeted approach" for goods which could enter the EU's single market via Northern Ireland, with products just being sold in Northern Ireland allowed to circulate "near freely"
  • Northern Ireland to have continued access to goods from the rest of the UK via an approach to regulations that accepts both British and EU standards
  • A "normal" treaty framework to govern the deal, with no role for the Court of Justice.

Lord Frost said it was "clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16" but “nevertheless, we have concluded that it is not the right moment to do so".

He told peers: "There has been significant disruption to East-West trade, a significant increase in trade on the island of Ireland as companies change supply chains and considerable disruption to everyday lives.

"There has also been societal instability, seen most regrettably with the disorder across Northern Ireland at Easter," he said, adding that Unionists were concerned with the protocol's effect.

David Frost told peers the UK cannot continue with current Brexit arrangements
David Frost told peers the UK cannot continue with current Brexit arrangements. Picture: Alamy

Among the disruption, Lord Frost said 200 suppliers had decided to stop selling to Northern Ireland and supermarket product lines were being reduced.

Difficulties have been encountered not just with chilled meats but with pets, medicine, seeds and plants, among other areas, he added.

Brussels is concerned that allowing freer trade with Britain, which is not subject to EU rules, could allow goods to enter the market via a porous Northern Ireland-Ireland border without meeting standards.

Lord Frost urged the EU to "find a new path" and use "fresh eyes" to get the post-Brexit relationship on a "better footing".

He said the UK wants a "standstill period" where the grace periods in the deal are extended, which he said would give businesses some stability.

Mr Sefcovic said: "We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today.

"We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland.

"However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol."