Image source, Reuters
The UK government is “laying the foundations” to trigger Article 16 and suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister has said.
Simon Coveney warned that such a move would be in “bad faith”.
The protocol is the special Brexit deal agreed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
It keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and allows free-flowing trade with the EU.
But it also creates a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The EU has proposed measures to ease the checks and controls for goods crossing the Irish Sea.
But the UK is demanding fundamental reform and there is growing speculation that it will trigger Article 16, which allows parts of the protocol to be unilaterally suspended if they are causing serious difficulties, in the coming weeks.
On Sunday Mr Coveney said the “messages” that he was getting from political parties in Northern Ireland, the European Commission and others was that London was preparing to trigger Article 16 after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
He told Irish national broadcaster RTÉ that such a move would be a “significant act that would damage relationships between Britain and Ireland”.
“I think all the evidence now suggests that the British government are laying the foundations to trigger Article 16,” Mr Coveney said.
“That is a worry – I think we need not to be naïve in terms of what’s happening.”
There is growing speculation that the UK is planning to use Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks.
The Irish government says such a move would be “reckless and irresponsible”, and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic warns it could result in “serious consequences”.
Ultimately the EU could impose tariffs on UK goods but that would only be possible after a lengthy arbitration process.
The arbitrators would first have to find that the UK is in breach of the protocol.
Then the UK would have to refuse to remedy that breach, at which point the EU could retaliate under the terms of the wider Brexit deal.
It could require another arbitration process to rule whether the use of tariffs is proportionate retaliation.
There is a potentially faster legal track – known as infringement proceedings – which could lead to the UK being fined.
Read more: What is Article 16 and why does it matter?
Mr Coveney said triggering Article 16 would put “extraordinary pressure on parties in Northern Ireland”.
“Whether that is part of an ongoing negotiating strategy to try to change, amend or end the protocol is hard to know but certainly the signals are not good,” he said.
Mr Coveney said that if the UK did suspend parts of the Northern Ireland deal it would be “deliberately forcing a breakdown in relationships and negotiation between the two sides”.
The minister said the UK was deliberately asking for “what they can’t get”.
Earlier, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said suspending parts of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal would not resolve the dispute between the UK and EU.
Sir Keir said triggering Article 16 was not in the “interests of the communities or businesses” in Northern Ireland.
“What is in their interests is resolving the issues,” he said.
“Because of the way the protocol was drafted, because of what the prime minister signed, it is perfectly true that there are checks from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We want to reduce those.
“What I am saying is don’t rip up the protocol because that has that very important central purpose, which is to protect the no border in Northern Ireland.”
The Labour leader told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show he wanted to see “both sides sitting down and resolving this”.
“There’s a little bit of me, I am afraid, that can’t help think that the prime minister is constantly trying to pick a fight on things like this so he hopes people don’t look elsewhere in the forest, which are things like the Owen Paterson affair,” Sir Keir said.
Asked if he would be prepared to renegotiate the Brexit deal to mitigate any impact on economic growth, Sir Keir said he would not rip up the deal but there were “sensible adjustments” that could be made to improve the arrangement.
“I think we need to make Brexit work – it’s all very well saying get Brexit done, we’ve got to make Brexit work,” he said.
“In order to do that, we have got to deal with some of the gaps and weaknesses in the current arrangements.”
The Labour leader said he would do “whatever I could to make it easier for British firms to trade across the world, but particularly with the EU”.
“What I’m not talking about is re-joining the EU, what I’m not talking about is ripping up the current agreement and starting again – nobody wants to be in that place.”
Former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major said on Saturday that triggering Article 16 and suspending parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol would be “colossally stupid”.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has warned the UK government that suspending parts of the protocol could endanger the wider Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU.
On the prospect of the UK triggering Article 16, Ms McDonald said: “It would demonstrate just again colossal bad faith and demonstrate again that Ireland, the north of Ireland in particular, is collateral damage in the Tory Brexit as they play games and play a game of chicken with the European institutions.”