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EU warns UK on Northern Ireland protocol after inconclusive talks

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The EU has warned there would be “serious consequences” for the UK if it suspended parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, a key element of the Brexit deal.

Speaking in Brussels after hours of inconclusive talks on Friday with UK Brexit minister Lord David Frost, the EU’s Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic told reporters: “Let there be no doubt that triggering Article 16 — to seek the renegotiation of the protocol — would have serious consequences.

“Serious for Northern Ireland, as it would lead to instability and unpredictability. And serious also for EU-UK relations in general, as it would mean a rejection of EU efforts to find a consensual solution to the implementation of the protocol.”

The UK and EU have been in a stand-off for months over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the protocol, the region remained in the EU single market for goods after the UK left the bloc to avoid imposing a trade border on the island of Ireland.

But the UK government wants to rewrite the agreement, which it insists is not working. Sefcovic proposed plans in October to reduce checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea after the UK complained that the agreement was hitting trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and stirring unrest in the unionist community.

The EU said its reforms would cut customs checks by half and health checks by 80 per cent on British products clearly destined for Northern Ireland. But UK officials have said this does not go far enough.

After the inconclusive talks on Friday, Sefcovic said: “We have seen no move at all from the UK side. I find this disappointing and once again, I urge the UK government to engage with us sincerely.”

According to a UK spokesperson, Frost told Sefcovic that “that the EU’s proposals did not currently deal effectively with the fundamental difficulties in the way the protocol was operating”.

“He added that, in the UK view, these gaps could still be bridged through further intensive discussions.”

Frost earlier told reporters that “Article 16 is very much on the table”. 

EU diplomats said that in recent weeks member states have been talking to the commission about what countermeasures the bloc could take if the UK makes good on its threats to invoke Article 16.

While some advocated targeted action, such as slowing cross-Channel trade with more intensive customs and health checks, others favour the more dramatic move of ending the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which permits tariff and quota-free goods trade between the EU and UK.

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The UK would then have a year to decide whether to stick with the protocol and the TCA, or trade on World Trade Organization terms.

“If the TCA [termination] is triggered it would be 12 months before it takes effect. You start a new clock with a new deadline,” said one EU diplomat. “The member states don’t think this negotiation is going anywhere. We are dealing with ideologues. You cannot reason with them.”

Frost and Sefcovic will meet again for talks in London on November 12, with both hinting that it will be a make or break session.

Separately, Downing Street announced that it had appointed Lord Jonathan Caine, an expert on Northern Ireland who served as a special adviser to six British secretaries of state for the region, to be a junior minister at the Northern Ireland Office.

Additional reporting by Peter Foster

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