The UK government has issued a veiled threat to ditch the Northern Ireland protocol sooner rather than later, warning it “cannot wait for ever” for the EU to respond to its demands to rewrite the Brexit arrangement.
The Brexit minister, David Frost, said he had been waiting since July for a formal request for substantial changes to the protocol, which the UK has largely suspended over objections to checks on a range of goods including sausages.
In a speech to the Conservative party conference declaring the “long bad dream of EU membership” over, Lord Frost warned the EU that it must come back with “ambitious” proposals to renegotiate the protocol, which was drawn up to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But setting the scene for an imminent triggering of article 16, allowing the UK to unilaterally suspend some of the current arrangements, if the EU does not respond, he told a half-full hall in Manchester, he was not confident the EU would meet his demands.
“From what I hear I worry that we will not get one [a response] which enables the significant change we need,” he said.
“We cannot wait for ever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will need to act, using the article 16 safeguard mechanism, to address the impact the protocol is having on Northern Ireland.
“That may in the end be the only way to protect our country – our people, our trade, our territorial integrity, the peace process, and the benefits of this great UK, of which we are all part,” he said.
He attacked what he described as the EU’s “heavy-handed actions”, which he said had led to the protocol unravelling sooner than he had anticipated.
“Cross-community political support for the protocol has collapsed,” he said.
His claims came days after business representatives in Northern Ireland warned that triggering article 16 would have a chilling effect on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the EU.
The EU’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, who was in the audience, said there was “nothing strange” or unexpected in Frost’s speech, promising a response to the UK’s demands within the coming weeks.
“We are looking forward to the solutions in Northern Ireland. We are ready to be flexible,” said.
He told delegates Boris Johnson knew he was “taking a risk” when he agreed the protocol in the “difficult autumn” of 2019 but the risk was “a worthy one, in the cause of peace and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”.
But he added: “We worried right from the start that the protocol would not take the strain if not handled sensitively. As it has turned out, we were right.”