France Says EU Is Ready to Escalate Fight Over Northern Ireland

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Clement Beaune, France’s junior European Affairs minister and key ally of President Emmanuel Macron, warned that the European Union will take action if the U.K. leaves the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement.

“We wouldn’t be happy to do it, but we would be ready to do it and respond,” Beaune said in an interview on the sidelines of a gathering of European officials in Bratislava, Slovakia.

The comments come amid a deepening row over post-Brexit trade rules with Boris Johnson’s U.K. government.

Just before a Group of Seven summit last week, Macron reiterated that the deal signed by the U.K. in December, which created a trade border in the Irish sea, was set in stone. Britain attacked the “lopsided” attitude the EU is taking to enforcing checks on in goods entering Northern Ireland.

Beaune said the U.K. should have expected the border controls.

“It’s a good deal, a balanced deal,” he said. For the U.K., “it would be crazy to say now: ‘Oh sorry, we forgot to look at what Brexit means.’”

Rising tensions over the issue have roiled supermarket supply chains and stirred violent protests among Northern Ireland’s unionists, and the EU has warned it could impose trade tariffs unless the U.K. falls in line.

Mechanisms to respond to breaches of the agreement are built into the Brexit deal, and Beaune said the EU should stick to these. He also suggested the bloc could take its time to grant so-called equivalences, which would allow the U.K. financial sector to keep operating in the region. Even a non-binding memorandum of understanding on financial services hasn’t moved forward yet.

“We don’t really feel like rushing the process as long as the U.K. doesn’t give the impression that it keeps its commitments,” Beaune said in the interview. There isn’t “a climate of trust” right now.

France takes over the EU’s rotating presidency for six months in January.

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