Blog: UK’s Frost says EU dodging ‘heart of problem’ in post-Brexit trade – POLITICO Europe

The EU’s latest concessions on enforcing post-Brexit trade rules at Northern Ireland ports don’t touch “the heart of the problem” as Brussels still seeks to impose an impossibly rigorous trade border there, according to U.K. Brexit point-man David Frost.

Frost told the Policy Exchange think tank Thursday he’s determined to reduce current volumes of checks on goods arriving from Britain without imposing more, as the EU expects.

He left open the prospect of Britain defying the EU when a ban on shipments of British chilled meat products is due to come into force at the end of September.

The Northern Ireland protocol, agreed as part of the U.K.’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, requires Britain to enforce EU customs and sanitary controls on goods shipped to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. It’s designed to avoid imposing such controls on the 500-kilometer border with the Republic of Ireland.

Seeking to avert a potential trade war, Frost’s European Commission counterpart in ongoing negotiations, Maroš Šefčovič, last week announced a three-month delay on enforcement of the chilled meat ban. He also pledged new EU legislation to ensure British medicine supplies can keep flowing without restriction to Northern Ireland hospitals and pharmacies.

Yet under terms of the trade protocol agreed by Frost, the EU still expects chilled meat shipments from Britain to stop by October 1. On the same date, it expects Britain to launch customs and sanitary checks on consumer parcels and retail products coming from Britain but staying in Northern Ireland — another part of the protocol deal that Britain unilaterally postponed — arguing that companies, port staff and IT systems couldn’t handle the load.

“We need to find a new balance in the way this works. That needs to be taken seriously as a way forward,” said Frost, speaking alongside Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. “If operating the protocol on the current basis is making the situation worse, then how can pressing for even more of it be the right response?”

Frost said he would present the Westminster Parliament with his negotiating plans before it rises July 22. These plans, he said, foresee “a big effort” by both sides to resolve their protocol arguments in talks likely to extend “into the autumn.”

Yet Frost ruled out the EU’s central proposal to eliminate four-fifths of proposed checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain: a temporary agreement aligning the U.K. to the EU’s food and veterinary standards.

“Obviously, aligning with or adopting the EU’s agri-food legislation is not going to be a solution,” Frost said. “We are sometimes accused of being ideological for not accepting that. But actually, the ideological thing is to say that the only solution to these problems is that we adopt EU law. That is simply a non-starter for this problem.”

He accused the EU of not providing detailed responses to more than a dozen issues highlighted in U.K. position papers, nor engaging seriously with the U.K.’s counterproposal for an “equivalence” agreement. This would involve the EU accepting that U.K. standards don’t currently deviate from EU requirements; it wouldn’t bind the U.K. to observe any upcoming EU legislation on food or animal health.

“We’d like to discuss this in depth. It hasn’t been possible at the moment. But an alternative solution is on the table [and] can be discussed,” he said.

Frost said Šefčovič’s conciliatory moves last week were welcome signs of flexibility, “but they’re not really the heart of the problem.” This reflected Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s assessment Wednesday that they represented only “a stay of execution.”

“If the protocol is implemented in a way in which the GB-Northern Ireland trade boundary is like any other external boundary of the EU, then we will definitely have problems, because it isn’t that — and we can’t operate it as if it was.”

Lewis said the upcoming October 1 rules, if enacted as the EU wants, would require British supermarkets with no outlets in the Republic of Ireland (such as Asda and Sainsbury’s) to face the same level of bureaucracy as those like M&S and Tesco that do ship goods there via Northern Ireland ports.

The threat of increased red tape and costs for veterinary certificates would deter many firms in England, Scotland and Wales from continuing to fulfill orders in Northern Ireland, he warned.

“If you can’t get a product through Amazon or from your supermarket that you used to be able to get, that as a U.K. citizen you should be able to get, that is an issue,” Lewis said.

‘Inciting feeling against the EU’

Both Cabinet ministers were asked about blistering criticisms levied against them this week by John Bruton, a former Irish prime minister and EU ambassador to Washington.

Bruton argued that conceding to British demands for lax or loophole-filled controls at the ports of Belfast and Larne would set “a dangerous precedent” and undermine Ireland’s own essential access to the EU single market.

Frost and Lewis, he predicted, would spend the three-month extension of the chilled meat ban “inciting feeling against the EU and endeavoring to pressurize EU states individually, in the hope that the EU will dilute or corrode the legal foundations of the EU single market in the interest of domestic U.K. politics.”

Frost and Lewis declined to respond directly to those criticisms. But Frost said the current poor state of U.K.-EU relations couldn’t improve until their deadlock over the protocol was decisively broken.

“The issues around the protocol are obviously central to the tensions between us,” Frost said. “I don’t think we will ever get this relationship onto a new and constructive footing unless we can find a good solution to this problem which everybody in Northern Ireland can live with, which we can work with and which the EU can work with.”

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