Britain and the European Union are at loggerheads over government demands to rewrite the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland and strip EU courts of their right to police the agreement.
In a series of proposals published yesterday ministers said Brussels must allow goods that do not meet European standards to continue to be sold in the province and reduce the number of checks on products being sent across the Irish sea.
Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, also insisted the EU must give up its right to take disputes over the Northern Ireland protocol to the European Court of Justice.
It came as the chairman of Marks & Spencer, Archie Norman, said there would likely be “gaps on shelves” in Northern Ireland once light-touch export rules end in September.
“This Christmas, I can tell you already, we’re having to make decisions to delist product for Northern Ireland because it’s simply not worth the risk of trying to get it through,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We’ve already made that decision. We’re waiting to see how serious it’s going to be, but if it’s anything like southern Ireland [the Republic of Ireland], and at the moment it’s set to be, then it’s going to be very, very serious for customers.”
He added: “It risks being incendiary for the public in Northern Ireland because you can’t think of a more visible demonstration of how you’re not a full part of the UK than you can’t get your favourite Christmas products. You can’t buy M&S chicken, free-range eggs, sandwiches.”
Lord Frost stopped short of warning that the UK would trigger Article 16 of the protocol, despite claiming that the conditions to activate it had been met. Under the agreement Article 16 — suspending all or part of the treaty — can be triggered unilaterally if it is causing significant damage to the economy and society.
Frost said the UK preferred to try negotiating changes to the protocol to address the government’s concerns, but he did not rule out using the mechanism if it was needed.
In an article in The Times today he says the “ball is now in the EU’s court” and urges Brussels “to think carefully” about the proposals.
“There is a huge prize on offer here – stability in Northern Ireland and a better relationship between us as Europeans,” he writes. “Moving away from established positions, and being ready to compromise.”
The UK side described its proposals as constructive but privately admitted it would require renegotiating the protocol that was only agreed with the EU 18 months ago. This was rejected by the European Commission’s vice-president, Maros Sefcovic, who said “respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance”.
“We will continue to engage with the UK (and) are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation. Joint action in the joint bodies established by the withdrawal agreement will be of paramount importance over the coming months. We must prioritise stability and predictability in Northern Ireland.”
This was echoed by the Irish premier Micheal Martin, who said: “We’ve made it very clear to the UK government that the mechanisms exist within the withdrawal agreement for issues that need to be resolved within the operation of the protocol.”
Ministers said they wanted to engage in “productive” talks with the EU over the changes. Outlining the proposals in the Lords, Frost said the government was suggesting a standstill in the ongoing disputes over the protocol to give time for the talks to take place. But he warned that, even with the current exemptions, the situation was unsustainable and that Britain would be in its rights to unilaterally terminate elements of the agreement.