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HomeAFPBritain gives EU deadline to fix N. Ireland accord

Britain gives EU deadline to fix N. Ireland accord

The UK government on Monday said it could abandon a post-Brexit trading accord for Northern Ireland in the next four weeks, unless the European Union agreed to wholesale changes.

Speaking on the fringes of the annual conference of the ruling Conservative party, Brexit minister David Frost said he had presented legal texts to overhaul the pact and expected a response from Brussels “in the next ten days or so”.

That would then trigger what Frost said should be a short period of negotiations that could lead to the government invoking a suspension clause — Article 16 — of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.

“There comes a decision point, probably around early November, whether an agreement can be reached or whether it can’t. Certain consequences flow from that,” he said.

But the minister stressed that London would act “predictably” and with “legal certainty” by giving adequate notice.

Frost acknowledged the risk of EU reprisals via trade tariffs on UK-wide goods, but vowed a “robust” response from his government, stressing Prime Minister Boris Johnson was “the toughest person in the room” when it comes to confronting Brussels.

The minister also played down the likely repercussions for Britain’s relations with the United States, should Article 16 be invoked.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned Johnson against destabilising the 1998 peace agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

Biden was one of many “interested observers” of the troubled territory, Frost said, but the UK shared his aim of protecting the Good Friday Agreement while safeguarding Northern Ireland’s status in the UK.

“The unity of the country is paramount, obviously, and we have to proceed on that basis.”

– Business fears –

The British Chambers of Commerce said an “agreed solution” between London and Brussels about the protocol was “by far the best outcome”, as it offered businesses certainty.

“The last thing exporters need is the risk of tariffs hanging over UK goods exports to the UK if agreement on the protocol cannot be reached and talks break down,” said head of trade policy William Bain.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told Conservative delegates the government wanted “to negotiate a solution that is binding and sustainable”.

“The current structure of the protocol is not sustainable. It is failing everyone in Northern Ireland,” he said at an event alongside the province’s former first minister, Arlene Foster.

Foster, relaying the universal loathing of the protocol among pro-UK unionist leaders in Northern Ireland, earned applause from the packed hall in demanding of Article 16: “What are we waiting for?”

In Brussels, EU spokesman Dan Ferrie declined to address the UK threats specifically.

“But you know we’re working intensively to find practical solutions to some of the difficulties that people in Northern Ireland are experiencing,” he told reporters.

“We intend to come forward with solutions soon.”

The protocol formed part of the UK’s drawn-out divorce from the EU, and was designed to prevent unchecked goods heading into the bloc’s single market via the UK’s only land border with the EU to Ireland.

But unionists in Northern Ireland are opposed, arguing checks on goods from mainland Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales — effectively create a border in the Irish Sea, compromising the province’s place in the wider UK.

– ‘Heavy-handed’ –

Frost said there were indications that Brussels was dropping its prior insistence that the protocol is not up for renegotiation, made when he presented a package of proposed reforms in July.

“The long bad dream of our EU membership is over,” he also said in an earlier speech to the Conservative gathering.

“The British renaissance has begun,” he said, insisting that Brexit was working in recapturing UK sovereignty despite a supply chain crisis.

Foster said there was evidence of companies diverting trade away from Northern Ireland, which she said would be one of the permissible factors foreseen in the protocol for invoking Article 16.

Nevertheless, Lewis talked up the province’s potential as a bridgehead between the UK and the EU’s single market, as well as its promise as a hub for the film, technology and medical industries.

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