EU Ready to Escalate Brexit Clash If U.K. Quits Northern Ireland Pact
(Bloomberg) -- The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator told member states they should be ready with a dramatic response if the U.K. makes good on threats to ditch its commitments over trade with Northern Ireland.
European Commissioner Maros Sefcovic struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday evening as he presented his proposals for resolving the stand off over Northern Ireland in public. But earlier in the day he told European diplomats meeting behind closed doors that the bloc would retaliate forcefully if the U.K. seeks to pull out of the Northern Ireland protocol, according to two officials briefed on the conversation.
A commission spokesman declined to comment on the meeting.
Meanwhile the British government said there is “much work to do” and a “substantial gap” between their respective positions on Northern Ireland, according to a statement from a U.K. spokesperson. British Brexit minister David Frost will meet Sefcovic for lunch in Brussels on Friday.
“Both we and the EU now have proposals on the table,” the statement said. “We need to discuss them intensively in the days to come to see if the gaps can be bridged and a solution found which delivers the significant change needed.”
The EU and the U.K. are starting a new round of negotiations over trade barriers in Northern Ireland after Frost demanded extensive changes to the agreement, saying it is hurting trade with the region. Sefcovic opened the door to talks by offering wide-ranging concessions, including a proposal to cut the number of customs checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland by half.
“I want to focus on the positive agenda, I want to focus on the solutions, and I hope that Lord Frost will join me in that effort,” Sefcovic said.
At the meeting with envoys, Sefcovic was tight-lipped about the details of what the EU could do if London decides to revoke its commitments using Article 16 of the agreement, officials said. The commissioner said the conversation should be about the positives of the package he was offering rather than hypothetical situations.
The protocol was a creative solution to one of the toughest parts of the Brexit negotiations -- how to remove the U.K. from the single market and the oversight of EU regulations without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland. Both sides agreed to avoid that outcome so as not to jeopardize the peace settlement between Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries.
The solution was to keep Northern Ireland inside the single market, but to achieve that Frost agreed to customs checks on goods arriving from the rest of the U.K.
Any EU response to the U.K. ditching a binding international treaty would have to be a drastic measure that gives an unequivocal signal, one EU diplomat said. Another pointed out that the Northern Ireland protocol is a fundamental pillar of the EU’s relationship with the U.K. so the bloc would have no other choice if it was pulled down.
Frost said Tuesday the U.K. is prepared to trigger Article 16 -- a clause in the protocol that allows for unilateral safeguard measures if “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” result from its implementation. While the U.K. welcomed the EU’s overture on Wednesday, it doesn’t address key British demand that the European Court of Justice’s oversight of the accord be ended.
The EU has previously warned it’s prepared to respond with legal and retaliatory trade measures if Article 16 is invoked.
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