EU Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic has warned Britain that suspending Northern Ireland’s special trade deal would have “serious consequences”.
Concern is mounting that London will invoke an emergency clause in the UK Withdrawal Agreement, and it is feared the EU could hit back in moves to suspend the trade deal struck late last year.
Such an escalation could have drastic consequences for Ireland caught in the crossfire.
Talks between Mr Sefcovic and British Brexit Minister David Frost in Brussels yesterday ended with reports of “limited progress”.
The only hopeful sign was that another face-to-face meeting between the pair has been fixed for London next week.
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Sefcovic said the EU had “spared no effort” in drawing up a package to cut back customs-related red tape and do away with 80pc of sanitary checks on animal products.
“This was a big move by us, but until today we have seen no move at all from the UK side. I find this disappointing and, once again, I urge the UK government to engage with us sincerely,” the EU Commission vice-president said.
“From this perspective I see next week as an important one. We should focus all efforts on reaching a solution as soon as possible. Our aim should be to establish stability and predictability for Northern Ireland,” Mr Sefcovic added.
For his part, the UK minister warned “time was running out” to fix the row over Northern Ireland’s special post-Brexit trade status.
London is threatening to use a special emergency clause, known as Article 16, to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed in October 2019 and again confirmed by an EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement last Christmas Eve.
Britain and the EU are trying to find compromise solutions for problems caused by the trading arrangements for the North, which Northern Ireland unionists and London claim effectively mean “a border in the Irish Sea”.
The issue has led to some street violence in the North in recent months, with disturbances continuing this week.
Mr Frost said he still hoped they can make progress. “But honestly, the gap between us is still quite significant. But let’s see where we can get to. Time is running out on these talks. If we’re to make progress, we need to make progress soon,” he said.
The differences over Northern Ireland have soured relations between Brussels and London and now risk a trade war that could bring EU-UK trade to a standstill and cause huge losses to Irish businesses.
The UK threat of invoking Article 16 of the protocol – giving both parties to the agreement the right to suspend it in exceptional circumstances – casts a dark shadow over the talks.
Brussels officials increasingly believe London may invoke Article 16 as the UK-hosted COP26 climate change talks wind down in Glasgow over the coming days.
“We’re not going to trigger Article 16 today, but Article 16 is very much on the table,” Mr Frost said.
Going back to last July, Britain has threatened to use the provision by early this month if the EU does not significantly change the protocol.
The EU says it will only vary the way the deal is operated and has offered to reduce checks on British goods going into the North by 80pc and customs form-filling by 50pc.
Mr Frost has insisted the EU’s policy-guiding commission must “listen” to demands to rewrite the protocol laid out by London if it wants to avert a breakdown.
Among the British changes demanded is ending the oversight of the European Court of Justice in trade disputes involving the North – something the EU flatly refuses to do.
European diplomats now believe the EU Commission is preparing for the possibility of London triggering Article 16 – and are ready to hit back with a “strong reaction”.
That could mean suspending the overall post-Brexit trade deal, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
There is now speculation that this suspension could be done via a special EU leaders’ summit.
That move could sever all ties between the two sides and put them back to square one and a no-deal Brexit that Ireland has been trying to help avert since UK voters opted to leave the EU in June 2016.
Mr Sefcovic’s warning on using Article 16 was emphatic: “Let there be no doubt that triggering Article 16 to seek the renegotiation of the Protocol would have serious consequences.”
The Northern Ireland dispute is compounded by Britain and France also being mired in another messy post-Brexit dispute over fishing rights.
The UK Brexit minister met the French EU minister, Clement Beaune, on Thursday and they will speak again next week.