The EU Commissioner for Brexit will tell David Frost that negotiations on Northern Ireland are doomed to fail unless he drops an “unattainable” request about the role of the European Court of Justice.
At a meeting in London on Friday, Maroš Šefčovič will warn Britain’s Brexit Minister, Lord Frost, that Downing Street must “take a step” towards the EU for the talks to be “meaningful”.
Concern is growing in Brussels that Boris Johnson has already decided to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks to suspend post-Brexit deals and impose his vision.
Brussels is preparing a “ladder” of retaliatory options, up to the suspension of the trade agreement agreed on last Christmas Eve, trying to convince the UK of the virtues of its approach.
“We believe the UK’s targets are unattainable,” said a senior EU official. “The UK position is that the role of the EU institution must disappear … As long as this remains the UK position, I don’t see what we can do.”
The post-Brexit talks for Northern Ireland are in their fourth week. A protocol in Johnson’s signed withdrawal agreement keeps Northern Ireland in the single market and draws a customs border along the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
In October, the EU offered to drastically reduce the number of checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, in recognition of the political and economic upheaval caused. But the UK insists that the protocol needs more radical reformulation, including the removal of the European Court of Justice from its role as arbiter of EU law.
Brussels argued that Northern Ireland cannot maintain access to the single market without the European Court of Justice remaining the main arbiter of EU law.
“The UK wants us to engage in intense talks and we are happy to do so,” an EU official said ahead of Friday’s meeting. “But then the UK has to take a step towards us to ensure that the talks are meaningful. If the UK wants these discussions to be successful, then the big step we took on 13 October must be reciprocated. On matters relating to governance and the court of justice we have always made it clear that we think that the goals set by the UK are unattainable “.
Brussels believes the UK is too dogmatic in its approach, raising concerns about the sincerity of the prime minister’s desire to find a solution.
EU officials point to attempts to address concerns about VAT collection in Northern Ireland. Downing Street complained that the evolution of the EU legislative book applying to Northern Ireland could put traders at a disadvantage compared to those based in the rest of the UK.
An EU official said: “There is a specific provision in the protocol which gives a role to the joint committee to find solutions where the application of the VAT principles under the protocol creates problems in Northern Ireland. It is one of the paragraphs of article eight.
“On that point, for example, we say why we don’t use the mechanisms specifically provided by the protocol to see how far we can go. Yet the UK has never tried it and requires a radically different approach to VAT which would require a renegotiation of the protocol “.
France’s European Affairs Minister, Clément Beaune, suggested that Northern Ireland benefited from its access to both the EU and the single market, instead describing Brexit as “a failure” for the rest of the UK.
On Thursday he said: “Brexit is a failure, of course… Brexit has a more negative impact on the British economy than Covid, it is written in black and white.
“We have seen the shortages in Great Britain, the problems in Northern Ireland are better because they have access to the European market.”
Speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, Frost urged the EU to “stay calm”. “In my opinion, this negotiation process has not come to an end,” he said. “Even though we have been talking for nearly four weeks, chances remain that the talks have not yet been seriously scrutinized, including many approaches suggested by the UK.”
The Labor Party has called on Johnson to reach an agreement with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol and to put an end to the “poison of division” that the government says it has caused.
Northern Ireland’s shadow secretary Louise Haigh said the Conservative Party was “reckless” in its approach to Northern Ireland, where a fragile peace has held for more than 20 years.
In a speech to Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Peace in Belfast, he urged the prime minister not to cause “further poisonous instability” in the coming weeks.
Haigh said: “The reckless custody of the Good Friday agreement by the conservatives has sown division and undermined stability. This is not a partisan point, nor that it gives me any satisfaction. Peace in Northern Ireland is too precious to be a toy of partisan politics.
“The Labor Party recognizes and pays tribute to the work done by John Major, who helped lay the groundwork for the Good Friday agreement. But we cannot ignore the damage that has been done. “