There is still “a long way to go” to reach resolution on the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, Brexit minister Lord Frost has warned ahead of a meeting with his EU counterpart.
The Cabinet minister will hold talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels on Friday as the two sides prepare to embark on a fresh round of negotiations on the post-Brexit Irish Sea trading mechanisms.
On Wednesday, the EU tabled a range of proposals aimed at cutting the red tape the arrangements have imposed on moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
However, the plan did not address a key UK demand – the removal of the European Court of Justice’s oversight function in the operation of the protocol.
Ahead of the lunch meeting in Brussels, Lord Frost told Politico that the UK is studying the EU proposals “constructively”.
“Clearly they have proposed some changes; we do need to understand that detail, and we’ve begun that conversation, but there’s quite a long way to go,” he said.
Responding to claims that the UK is trying to tear up an international treaty, including allegations from former chief Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings that it was always the intention to ditch the protocol, Lord Frost said the Government knew some elements of the arrangements would “possibly be difficult to make work in practice” and they were always viewed as “a little bit provisional and open to review”.
He insisted movement on the ECJ is needed.
“They will need to if we are to find a solution, there needs to be significant change if we are to get an agreed solution,” he said.
Rejecting a claim that the UK is acting in bad faith, the Brexit minister added: “Obviously the protocol was agreed at a particular moment. We knew that some elements of the protocol would possibly be difficult to make work in practice, and some aspects of it were left open for the discussions in 2020 and afterwards.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that we found that that was the case… the very fact that the protocol has a consent mechanism (in the Stormont Assembly) in it for four years’ time showed we recognised that it might be necessary to renew or otherwise consent for these arrangements.
“In that sense they have always been a little bit provisional and open to review.”
Mr Sefcovic has said the EU has stretched itself to offer far-reaching compromises but insisted he has no mandate to renegotiate the protocol.
“Now we should really do the last mile, work constructively with all the proposals we put on the table, put it finally to bed,” he told BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme on Thursday night.
“I believe that we could be in the home stretch with our proposals on the table, and, as I said, let’s try to solve all these issues before Christmas because I think that would be the best Christmas gift we can give to the people of Northern Ireland.”
He added: “I have no mandate to renegotiate the protocol… the Withdrawal Agreement, protocol and trade and co-operation agreement, we signed it, we ratified it, it’s international law, and I think we should respect it.”
Lord Frost has warned the UK could move to suspend parts of the protocol, by triggering the Article 16 mechanism, if an acceptable compromise cannot be reached.
However, such a move could prompt retaliatory action on trade from the EU.
Amid reports that certain EU leaders are considering the form of potential retaliatory action, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he hopes member states are not considering a trade war.
“I don’t know the extent to which this is posturing on the part of some of the EU member states in advance of the negotiations but bear in mind that the EU has a massive trading surplus with the UK,” he told Times Radio.
“They sell far more goods into our country than we sell to them. We are a market of 60 million, the second largest market in Europe. Are those countries, especially the smaller member states, seriously saying they don’t want to sell us goods anymore, that they want a trade war? I would hope that isn’t the case.
“I can’t see how it’s in their interest to do that and what we need now is to focus on the negotiations. We’re not contemplating failure, we want to see success. But we are clear that if the EU does not step up and be reasonable in reaching an accommodation, then we do expect that the UK Government will take steps to protect the integrity of its own market.”
Sir Jeffrey was also pressed on the claim that Boris Johnson signed up to an agreement he knew he was going to break.
“I have no knowledge of that,” the DUP leader told Times Radio.
“That has certainly never been said to me and I was very much involved at that time. We were in a confidence and supply arrangement with the Government.
“At no stage did any Government minister including the Prime Minister say to me what you have described.”
The DUP leader also indicated the party’s threat to collapse powersharing at Stormont if changes to the protocol are not secured still stands.
“Our position is clear,” he said.
“I hope we can get a solution, but we are not going to continue implementing something that harms Northern Ireland.”