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Northern Ireland protocol clash risks ‘inevitable’ UK-EU trade war: Officials warn

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Container ships are berthed at the Port of Belfast, Northern Ireland January 2, 2021. (Reuters photo)

Officials are warning of a trade war between the United Kingdom and the European Union if the UK refuses to back down on its new demands for post-Brexit rules on Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, Brexit minister David Frost issued a new “command paper” that would radically rework the Northern Ireland protocol, which he himself negotiated.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is an integral part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement whose central aim is to maintain an open land border between British-controlled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland so as to facilitate the free movement of goods.

The protocol, which only came into force in January, has led to additional checks and delays on goods reaching the north of Ireland from Britain.

Frost’s new proposal was, however, rejected by the EU, with Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president, saying in an official statement that “we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol.”

Trade officials and business leaders have told The Independent that there is little time left to strike a deal ahead of the introduction of crucial deadlines for extra processes which the UK agreed under the protocol.

They are worried that the new move by the British government would push the UK and EU into a tit-for-tat trade fight.

“We are running short of ways to engage in a productive way, while we remain willing to do so. This paper is unhelpful, unrealistic, and a poor use of time. We will not hesitate to pursue further legal actions if the UK fails to adhere to its international legal obligations,” one senior EU official said.

This could include retaliatory tariffs which would impact all UK exporters to the EU, they said, adding that it would ultimately result in tit-for-tat tariffs, which are key ingredients for a full-blown trade dispute.

Also, an Irish diplomat said a trade spat would be inevitable if the steps Frost suggested were followed, particularly the demand that the protocol “no longer be policed by EU institutions and courts of justice.”

“If the UK seriously tries to avoid the governance structures in the protocol, a trade row will be all but inevitable. But we obviously hope that won’t be the case,” the diplomat said.

So far, the Brexit minister has held back from invoking Article 16, a mechanism that allows for parts of the protocol to be immediately suspended, however, Frost said that the circumstances would “justify” its use.

“It is clearly a kind of threat from London,” said Anton Spisak, a former UK Brexit negotiator and now policy expert at the Tony Blair Institute.

“This will add to disputes, to the idea that the UK is negotiating in bad faith in order to change the protocol. The destination of that is a trade war between the UK and the EU.”


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