The European Union (EU) has warned the UK government that its Brexit trade deal is “intrinsically linked” to the Northern Ireland (NI) protocol and “one cannot exist without the other.”
Speaking via video link ahead of crunch talks on Friday, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, told an event at the Brexit Institute at Dublin City University, “Settling the divorce has always been and remains a precondition for our future relationship. It was on this basis that we negotiated, concluded and ratified the trade and co-operation agreement on Christmas Eve last year.”
Sefcovic’s warning comes in the wake of the UK government’s repetitive threats of suspending the NI protocol using Article 16 of the trade deal.
On his way into the Friday talks in Brussels, UK Brexit Minister David Frost defended the possibility of using Article 16 and told reporters, “Obviously, our preference is to see if we can find a negotiated agreement, but if we can't, Article 16 remains on the table.”
Article 16 of the protocol, which addresses emergency provisions, allows both the UK and the EU to suspend any part of the agreement that causes “economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”
The NI protocol was agreed as part of the Brexit deal to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. According to this protocol, NI remains in the EU’s single market for goods as well as in Great Britain’s market, creating a trade border between NI and Great Britain, which requires transitioning goods to be checked and controlled.
The EU has proposed measures to ease those checks, but the UK is demanding fundamental reforms.
“There are a large number of issues that need to be fixed if we are going to resolve this problem. That’s obviously part of the discussion, but there are still really quite significant gaps between us,” Frost added.
“I wouldn’t expect any breakthroughs on anything today,” Frost said, referring to the Friday meeting.
EU and UK representatives have held several meetings to talk about the issue but there hasn’t been any progress. Fears are growing that triggering Article 16 will potentially rupture the UK’s already strained relations with the EU.