Talks between the EU and the UK on Northern Ireland appear to be on the brink of collapse, as London indicated that it was still considering unilateral action to keep the flow of supplies unhindered from Britain to the region.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said “patience was wearing thin” and described the relationship with the UK as “at a crossroads”.
Amid fears that the escalating crisis in Northern Ireland will turn into a trade war, David Frost, the Brexit minister, said there had been “no progress” in Brexit controls, but no “failures” after a two-hour meeting with Šefčovič in London. .
They agreed to keep trying to find a solution before June 30, when the ban on refrigerated meats, including sausages and minced meat, will go into effect.
But behind the scenes, UK sources were more scathing. “All options remain on the table,” said a senior source close to the talks.
On the prospect of retaliation and a trade war, the source said: “We feel like we’ve heard this before. Nobody wants to get into a trade war or anything like that, obviously.
“Unfortunately we have become accustomed to living in an environment in which they threaten us, and not only in this context. The EU seems to resort to threats quite frequently at a relatively early stage in the process. “
At a lengthy press conference in London, Šefčovič repeatedly expressed frustration at the UK’s broken promises to implement the protocol in Northern Ireland.
“If the UK takes more unilateral action in the coming weeks, we will have no qualms about reacting quickly, firmly and resolutely.”
When asked what form it could take, he said it could include legal action, arbitration or other retaliatory measures, including specific tariffs, which has led to talk of a “sausage war” between the UK and the EU in the Great British side of the Channel.
But he insisted: “We don’t want this to happen… It is not too late. We correct the way. “
He said the UK had had ample opportunity until January to express concern that the agreed Brexit controls would not work, but insisted they would be implemented.
Šefčovič said that he had asked Michael Gove at their first meeting in March last year if the UK was ready for controls, as the EU had never outsourced border controls to a third country before.
In December, he was assured time and again that everything would proceed as negotiated.
“If you are shipping sausages, cheese or meat products to Northern Ireland, the very easy solution is to stick the ‘Northern Ireland only’ sticker, and … we agreed on a simplified export health certificate. Do you think any of these things have happened? No, none, nothing was done, ”he said.
He described the meeting with Lord Frost as “very difficult”, revealing that the relationship got off to a rocky start when the UK minister announced a unilateral decision to disconnect part of the protocol.
It was only “several hours before our first phone call” and “it was not the best way to start a new relationship,” Šefčovič said.
Now there are fears that the UK, which first threatened to take action with the internal market bill, could take unilateral action for the third time on June 30.
“The problem we have is that the protocol is being implemented in a way that is causing disruption in Northern Ireland and today we had some pretty frank and honest discussions about that situation,” said Frost.
Šefčovič said the UK may not have understood what it was getting into. “It may be that our British partners could not fully estimate the full consequences of the Brexit they have chosen; what it would mean to leave the single market, the customs union, how complex it would be for companies ”, he said.
In a statement, the UK side said no substantial progress had been made on the prospect of a veterinary deal that the EU believes could mean that 80% of agri-food controls disappear and could work as a temporary measure.
Ministers have opposed the proposal, saying it would mean London would revert to EU law just six months after Boris Johnson went ahead with a tough Brexit, severing the country’s ties to the bloc’s trade rules.
Other areas where no substantial progress was made, according to the UK, included freedom of movement for passport-free pets, trusted merchant status for agri-food suppliers, and fees on steel and parcels.
Progress was made on the entry of guide dogs into Northern Ireland from Great Britain and the repeated request for EU access to the UK customs IT systems. The EU had promised more proposals on drug supplies and livestock movements, Downing Street said.