Brexit minister Lord Frost is urging the EU to show “pragmatism and common sense” in resolving continuing differences over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement in Northern Ireland.
Ahead of talks in London on Wednesday, Lord Frost said threats from Brussels of trade wars and legal action would not help people and businesses in Northern Ireland struggling with the “damaging impact” the agreement was having on the ground.
His appeal came after European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said the EU would act “swiftly, firmly and resolutely” if the UK tried to backtrack on its obligations under the Northern Ireland Protocol in the agreement.
It came amid reports Britain is ready to act unilaterally to delay imposition of checks on chilled meats such as sausages and chicken nuggets coming to Northern Ireland from Great Britain when the current “grace period” expires at the end of June.
In a statement ahead of his meeting with Mr Sefcovic, Lord Frost said time was running out to find the “practical solutions” that were needed to enable the protocol to work as it was intended to.
He said the “overriding priority” for both sides must be the preservation of the Northern Ireland peace process and he called on the EU to show the “flexibility” required to achieve the results which “enjoy the confidence of all communities”.
“Businesses in Great Britain are choosing not to sell their goods into Northern Ireland because of burdensome paperwork, medicine manufacturers are threatening to cut vital supplies, and chilled meats from British farmers destined for the Northern Ireland market are at risk of being banned entirely,” he said.
“Further threats of legal action and trade retaliation from the EU won’t make life any easier for the shopper in Strabane who can’t buy their favourite product. Nor will it benefit the small business in Ballymena struggling to source produce from their supplier in Birmingham.
“What is needed is pragmatism and common sense solutions to resolve the issues as they are before us. This work is important. And it is ever more urgent.
“It is only by making substantial progress across the whole range of difficulties that we can show people in Northern Ireland that the protocol can work in a pragmatic, proportionate and sustainable way – as was always intended.”
Earlier, Downing Street insisted there could be no justification for preventing chilled meats from the rest of the UK being sold in Northern Irish shops, while Environment Secretary George Eustice said the suggestion was “bonkers”.
It came after Mr Sefcovic raised the prospect of a trade war – with Brussels imposing tariffs and quotas on British exports – if the UK failed to meet its international obligations under the the protocol.
The agreement – intended to ensure there is no return to a hard border with the Republic – means that Northern Ireland remains part of the EU single market, which in turn requires checks on some goods coming from Great Britain.
But Mr Sefcovic said there had been “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the UK’s implementation of the agreement.
He said that if Britain took further unilateral measures, the EU “will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations”.