Britain and the EU will agree in a key ‘stocktaking meeting’ on Monday to continue discussing post-Brexit trade rule reforms with Northern Ireland as the two sides try to avoiding splits during the Ukrainian crisis.
Months of negotiations over the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol have yielded little progress, suggesting Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson may soon suspend parts of the deal to curry favor with MPs Eurosceptic conservatives.
But Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, will tell a meeting in Brussels that she wants to settle the dispute to allow the two sides “to focus on building a stronger relationship and focus on the issues foreign affairs, in particular the situation in Eastern Europe and to stand up to Russian aggression”.
The ‘Joint Committee’ – a forum comprising the UK, European Commission and EU member states set up to monitor the Brexit deal – is meeting for the first time since June 2021.
The meeting will note some limited progress in talks aimed at simplifying post-Brexit trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, but recognize that major gaps remain. “It will not be a breakthrough or a collapse,” an EU diplomat said.
The deadlock over the protocol sparked speculation in Brussels and Whitehall that Johnson would soon roll out Article 16, the deal’s escape clause, allowing him to suspend parts of the deal.
Contingency planning has been stepped up in London for such an outcome, including likely trade retaliation from the EU. The US has also warned of trade repercussions if Article 16 is activated, although the UK insists Washington does not tie steel tariff talks to EU trade rules. ‘North Ireland.
But Johnson is under pressure from the pro-Brexit European research group of Tory MPs to suspend the protocol, which was agreed to avoid the return of a north-south trade border on the island of Ireland and left Northern Ireland in the single EU. commodity market.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, tweeted on Sunday: “Time to call the clock on Northern Ireland protocol. Two years after we officially left the EU, the protocol still gives Brussels a sway over wider UK policy-making. It is divisive, restrictive and causes real harm to the local economy.
EU diplomats fear Johnson will cave to that pressure, particularly if the Metropolitan Police fines him for breaching Covid rules in the so-called ‘turnout’ case, putting his leadership under further scrutiny.
“That wouldn’t surprise us. Johnson will do anything to stay in power,” a diplomat said.
An alternative UK strategy could be to seek additional time to initiate full checks on goods from July while talks continue. The EU should decide to refuse or relaunch legal proceedings for the UK’s non-implementation of the protocol.
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UK government officials admit there has been ‘increasing chatter’ over Article 16 and that the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which opposes the protocol, has urged the ‘ERG to push Johnson to suspend him.
A Tory official said there was ‘no imminent move’ towards using Article 16. The official added: ‘Nobody expected that much from Monday’s meeting, but that obviously doesn’t mean not necessarily that Article 16 is inevitable”.
The only concrete achievement after months of talks between the UK and the EU has been to ensure the free flow of medicines from Britain to Northern Ireland after Brussels agreed to change its rules to allow UK regulators to approve them.
The two countries have succeeded in converging their positions on customs formalities, but major gaps remain on the sensitive issue of food, animal and plant controls.