The EU must still make significant changes to the contentious Northern Ireland protocol if the arrangement is to survive, the UK’s Brexit minister will warn this week, pouring cold water on efforts by Brussels to offer concessions.
Lord David Frost is due to make the remarks as the EU prepares to offer to scrap many border controls between Northern Ireland and the British mainland in an attempt to de-escalate tension over trade with a part of the UK that effectively remains part of the European single market.
EU concessions set out in a commission paper, expected to be approved next week, include allowing the free circulation of many food products across the Irish Sea, reducing the prospect of what some have dubbed a “sausage war”, a situation where chilled meats from Great Britain would be banned from entering Northern Ireland.
EU officials say the total number of customs checks could be cut in half.
However, the offer falls far short of British requirements that trade with Belfast should be as easy as trade with Birmingham, as well as demands to remove the oversight of the European Court of Justice from the deal.
In a speech on Lisbon on Tuesday, Lord Frost is expected to warn: “The EU now needs to show ambition and willingness to tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the protocol head on. The commission have been too quick to dismiss governance as a side issue. The reality is the opposite.
“The role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland and the consequent inability of the UK government to implement the very sensitive arrangements in the protocol in a reasonable way has created a deep imbalance in the way the protocol operates.
“Without new arrangements in this area, the protocol will never have the support it needs to survive.”
In 2020, Frost agreed to the protocol, which left some EU rules in place in Northern Ireland in order to prevent a hard border with Ireland. Failing to keep an open border risked inflaming community tensions between Protestants and Catholics in the north that had been greatly improved since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
UK officials have threatened to suspend the protocol entirely by invoking Article 16 of the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement, unless almost all checks are scrapped.
“Tinkering around the edges just won’t work”, an official said. “If the EU can’t show ambition and agree significant changes to the Protocol, we will have to use Article 16 to make sure arrangements are in place that do safeguard the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the peace process.”
The UK warned in July that the threshold for using Article 16 had already been reached, but it was delaying its use in order to find solutions. The EU has for the same reason deferred legal action that it took earlier this year over the UK’s breaching of the terms of the protocol.
Once triggered, Article 16 would require a set of talks and, if no deal were reached, potential legal and trade sanctions.
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president, ruled out removing the ECJ as the ultimate arbiter of the Northern Ireland protocol in a speech last week.
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