We're not budging on Northern Ireland Protocol, EU tells Liz Truss
Brussels has told Liz Truss it won’t shift from its hardline negotiating stance on Northern Ireland border checks despite her threats to rip up the Protocol unless it changes tack.
EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic insisted there was “no room to expand” his negotiating mandate during a strained call between the pair at 8am on Thursday, which lasted for just under half an hour.
"It continues to be of serious concern that the UK government intends to embark on the path of unilateral action," he said.
"This is despite a series of wide-ranging and impactful solutions proposed by the EU, based on our intensive engagement with all representatives in Northern Ireland. These proposals would substantially improve the way the Protocol is implemented."
"I am convinced that only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action, effectively disapplying an international agreement such as the Protocol, is simply not acceptable. This would undermine trust between the EU and UK."
The Commission Vice-President added the bloc would not “introduce new proposals to reduce the overall level of trade friction” according to a Foreign Office statement.
Ms Truss responded by saying his approach would leave the UK with “no choice” but to bring forward legislation to override the Protocol and end customs checks in the Irish Sea.
The foreign secretary said she “regrets” that European leaders aren’t prepared to show more “flexibility” on red tape and said the bloc has a “responsibility to show more pragmatism”.
“She noted that the current situation was causing unacceptable disruption to trade and had created a two-tier system where people in Northern Ireland weren’t being treated the same as everyone else in the UK”, a Foreign Office spokesman said.
“The Foreign Secretary reiterated that the UK's proposals to fix the Protocol…would ensure the removal of trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland while protecting the EU single market.
“The Foreign Secretary outlined why EU proposals would take us backwards, by creating more checks and paperwork.
“Vice President Šefčovič confirmed that there was no room to expand the EU negotiating mandate or introduce new proposals to reduce the overall level of trade friction.
“The Foreign Secretary noted this with regret and said the situation in Northern Ireland is a matter of internal peace and security for the United Kingdom, and if the EU would not show the requisite flexibility to help solve those issues, then as a responsible government we would have no choice but to act.”
A Whitehall source told The Telegraph: “Liz held her ground on the call and made the point that if the EU truly care about peace, stability and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement then surely they can show more flexibility.
“International treaties change all the time, why can’t parts of the Protocol?”
'Green and red lanes'
Britain has proposed a system of green and red lanes to minimise the number of checks required on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Under the plan products that were destined for the province would undergo minimal customs controls, easing the paperwork burden on businesses.
Only those shipments deemed at high risk of moving onwards into the Republic of Ireland would have to undergo the full range of EU checks.
Brussels is open to the idea but the two sides can’t agree on how to classify which goods go into either the green or red lane.
The UK has accused eurocrats of taking an overly cautious approach to which consignments can undergo light-touch checks, creating an unbearable burden for businesses.
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns said this means firms shipping food from Great Britain to Ulster needed to get veterinary certificates for boxes of shortbread.
“When you’ve got to the point where a container load of goods for Sainsbury’s requires the same level of checks, when there are no Sainsbury’s supermarkets in the Irish Republic as goods going to the Irish Republic something has gone wrong”, he said.
Sacha Berendji, the managing director for Marks and Spencer on the island of Ireland, said shipments now take 24 hours longer than before to process “which clearly has had a product on shelf-life for our customers” in Northern Ireland.
The Telegraph understands a decision on whether to bring forward legislation to override the Protocol could be taken as early as Monday.
If the Government does so the EU has vowed to respond swiftly by renewing legal action against the UK and potentially even ripping up the trade agreement.
Speaking on Wednesday the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said the threats of unilateral British action had “gone down very badly” in Brussels.
"What the EU can't do is not react to a breach of international law, to an undermining of a Withdrawal Agreement that has a significant impact on the EU as well as the UK”, he said.
Mr Sefcovic said threats to tear up the Protocol were “simply not acceptable” and would “undermine trust between the EU and UK as well as compromise our ultimate objective” of protecting the Good Friday Agreement.
“It continues to be of serious concern that the UK government intends to embark on the path of unilateral action”, he said in a statement following the call.
“We have made clear that there is still potential to be explored in our proposals. We are still awaiting the response from the UK side.
“I am convinced that only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action, effectively disapplying an international agreement such as the Protocol, is simply not acceptable.
“The EU and the UK are partners facing the same global challenges where upholding the rule of law and living up to international obligations is a necessity.
“Working side-by-side in a constructive manner is of utmost importance.”