LONDON — Britain’s Brexit minister on Wednesday warned Brussels against “massive and disproportionate retaliation” if the U.K. decides to unilaterally suspend post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.
David Frost told the House of Lords peace in Northern Ireland could be at risk if the EU decided to retaliate “in a disproportionate way.” He said the U.K. government believes that the tests — set out in Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol allowing both sides to unilaterally suspend the arrangement — have been met.
The two sides are locked in four weeks of talks about post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland. The protocol was drawn up to protect the EU’s single market post-Brexit while avoiding a politically sensitive hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member country. But the arrangement has proved deeply unpopular with Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians, while the U.K. government has argued it causes unnecessary bureaucracy for goods moving from Great Britain to the region.
If the U.K. was to trigger Article 16, Frost added, the government would explain its case to “any interested party” not just the signatories to the Brexit deals, but also to those “with a broader interest in relations with the EU and the U.K.” — in what appears to be a reference to EU member countries and to the U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned Boris Johnson not to put the Irish peace deal at risk.
“If the EU were to choose to react in a disproportionate way, and decide to aggravate the problems in Northern Ireland rather than reduce them, that is of course a matter for them,” he said. “But at that point we would be entitled to come to our own judgment about how much value we could attach to their commitment to supporting the peace process and the people of Northern Ireland as against protecting their own interests.”
Frost urged the Commission to engage with British proposals to change the agreement — outlined in a paper published in July — and take “the road not of confrontation but of opportunity.”
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič briefed diplomats earlier Wednesday on ongoing negotiations over the protocol and canvassed views of EU countries about possible responses should the U.K. trigger Article 16.