Cabinet ministers have turned up the rhetoric in a bid to push Brussels into concessions over the Northern Ireland Protocol by warning of possible disruption to peace in the region without changes.
In a joint article in the Irish Times, Brexit minister Lord Frost and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said this week’s extension of a grace period in the so-called sausage war was “welcome” but that the extension “addresses only a small part of the underlying problem”.
The pair warned the European Union that the Protocol – negotiated as part of the Brexit divorce deal – risks “damage” to the Good Friday Agreement, which in 1998 helped to secure peace after decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, unless a “new balance” is found in terms of customs checks.
It comes after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after holding talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Chequers on Friday, expressed optimism that “pragmatic solutions” can be reached on the Protocol.
Following a request from the UK, the EU on Wednesday agreed to continue to allow chilled meats to be shipped to Northern Ireland from Great Britain for another three months.
The deal avoids a trade dispute by delaying the ban until September 30 while efforts continue to find a lasting solution.
With a reprieve in place, Lord Frost and Mr Lewis urged Brussels to adopt a softer approach to the implementation of the Protocol – a treaty the Conservative peer helped to negotiate – or else risk further economic disruption and possibly even upsetting the peace in Northern Ireland.
The potential prohibition on chilled meats from Great Britain is one result of Brexit’s contentious Protocol, which has created a series of economic barriers on Irish Sea trade.
The protocol is aimed at avoiding a hard border with Ireland by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.
But Unionists – who have demonstrated against the UK-EU treaty in recent months – have complained the terms are splitting Northern Ireland from Great Britain and hitting the pockets of businesses, with suppliers either giving up exporting across the Irish Sea or facing added checks and costs to do so.
Writing in the Irish Times, the ministers said: “Opposition is growing, including among many people who are not normally active in political life. That is not a stable basis for the future.
“The current process to resolve all these difficulties is not working and risks creating a series of rolling crises as we lurch from one deadline to another.
“Wednesday’s agreement to extend by three months the right to circulate British sausages and chilled meats in Northern Ireland is welcome, but addresses only a small part of the underlying problem.
“In short, a seriously unbalanced situation is developing in the way the Protocol is operating – this risks economic harm in Northern Ireland and damage, in turn, to the essential balance within the Belfast Agreement itself.”
The Conservative frontbenchers called for a “new balance in the way the Protocol is operated” to be put into place “rapidly” and questioned how the EU’s insistence on stricter application of the Protocol would help matters.
“If operating the Protocol on the current basis is making the situation worse, then how can pressing for an even more rigorous assertion of it make sense?” they asked.
The pair said that the UK would have to “consider all our options” if no solution is forthcoming as ministers have “an overriding responsibility and obligation to support peace” in Northern Ireland, in what will likely be read as a further threat to act unilaterally to suspend irksome elements of the Protocol.
The Prime Minister, at a joint press conference with German leader Ms Merkel, said he hoped the “wurst is behind us” when it came to the chilled meat saga.