Brexit minister Lord Frost has said the UK and the EU “cannot go on as we are” with the current Northern Ireland Protocol arrangements, but that “now is not the time” to invoke Article 16.
Lord Frost told peers that the protocol arrangements need “significant change” and that proposals from the government will bring a “new balance” to the mechanism.
It comes as the UK government looks to overhaul post-Brexit trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to ensure the smooth moving of goods.
The Northern Ireland Protocol helps prevent the need for checks on Ireland’s internal border.
But speaking on Wednesday, Lord Frost admitted that the burdens imposed by the Northern Ireland Protocol “have been a source of considerable and ongoing disruption to lives and livelihoods”.
“We have seen reductions in supermarket product lines, we have seen more than 200 suppliers decide they would no longer sell to Northern Ireland,” he said making a statement on the protocol in the House of Lords.
“We have seen difficulties not just on the famous chilled meats issue but on medicines, on pets, on movements of live animals, on seeds, on plants and on many others.”
But the Brexit minister stopped short of entirely ripping up the document or calling for the Article 16 provision – which enables either the UK or the EU to suspend part of the arrangements in extreme circumstances – to be triggered.
Lord Frost said “it is clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16” but that “it is not the right moment to do so”.
He added: “Instead, we see an opportunity to proceed differently, to find a new path, to seek to agree with the EU through negotiations a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland to the benefit of all.”
If unresolved, the issue risk “being felt in the fabric of our Union too”, Lord Frost warned.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis added that the difficulties surrounding the protocol are now “the main obstacle to building a relationship with the EU that reflects our strong common interests and values”.
He urged the EU to carefully consider the UK government’s renewed proposals.
The Brexit minister then outlined the proposals in the UK government’s command paper which they hope will see “goods circulate much more freely within the UK customs territory while ensuring that full processes are applied to goods destined for the EU”.
According to the government’s published document, the plan includes:
- Returning to a normal treaty framework similar to all other international agreements.
- Exploring “exceptional arrangements” around data sharing and cooperation
- Introducing penalties to deter people looking to move non-compliant products from Northern Ireland to Ireland
- Streamlining trade and avoiding controls at Northern Ireland ports and airports
- Agreeing a standstill period including the suspension of all legal action by the EU and the operation of grace periods to allow continued trade of goods such as chilled meats including sausages.
- Ensuring that the relationship between the UK and the EU is not ultimately policed by EU institutions including the European Court of Justice
“We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face,” Lord Frost said, noting that the UK government will seek a discussion on the proposals “urgently”.
Making a statement simultaneously in the House of Commons, Mr Lewis said: “It’s now the time to work to establish a new balance, which both the UK and EU can invest in, to provide a platform for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and allow us to set out on a new path of partnership with the EU.
“We are today setting out an approach that we believe can do just that.
“We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and work with us to seize this opportunity and put our relations on a better footing. We stand ready to deliver the brighter future that is within reach.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described the government’s announcement as a “significant step”, adding that a “proper renegotiation” of the protocol is needed.
“The prime minister must continue at pace to remove the Irish Sea Border, which is fracturing the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom,” Sir Jeffrey told the Commons.
“The rigid refusal by Brussels to even consider renegotiation of the protocol is symptomatic of how we reached this point.
“The EU has failed to recognise the concerns of unionists and has shown zero respect for the consensus approach which has helped secure peace and stability in Northern Ireland.”
But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the government of “shamelessly ignoring” its international treaty obligations.
And Labour accused the government of “more political brinkmanship”.
“Today businesses and communities needed reassurance, they needed to see the secretary of state announce to this House an agreement on a sustainable way forward that will fix the problems the prime minister created,” Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said.
“Instead they have more political brinkmanship, more threats to tear up the protocol with nothing to take its place. Communities are tired of these games from a government they have totally lost trust in.”