Britain has accused the EU of adopting a “purist” approach to the Brexit withdrawal deal in Northern Ireland amid warnings that sales of sausages from the rest of the UK could be blocked.
Ahead of fresh talks on Wednesday to try to resolve the continuing differences over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the agreement, Downing Street urged Brussels to show “common sense and pragmatism”.
The 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 deal.
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.
While the Prime Minister’s official spokesman refused to be drawn on what steps the Government would take if there was no agreement by that point, he insisted there was no justification for barring chilled meats from Northern Irish shops.
“Any ban would be contrary to the aims of the protocol and the interests of the people of Northern Ireland,” the spokesman said.
“The protocol was a compromise. We didn’t expect the EU to take a purist approach when implementing it. We are working very hard to try to resolve these issues consensually.
“The Prime Minister has always made clear we will consider all our options in meeting our responsibility to sustain peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
“We hope that the EU will show the common sense and pragmatism needed to make progress.”
His comments came after Environment Secretary George Eustice dismissed the idea of controls on the movement of chilled meats between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland as “bonkers”.
“I think that’s a nonsense. I think we’ve got a very good sausage industry in this country, we’ve got the highest standards of food hygiene in the world,” he told LBC.
Earlier, 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 Northern Ireland Protocol.
The deal – 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 – who will hold talks with Brexit minister Lord Frost on Wednesday – said there had been “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the UK’s implementation of the agreement.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, he said that if Britain took further unilateral actions the EU “will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations”.