LONDON – UK Brexit minister David Frost on Wednesday called for cool heads in Europe as talk of a trade war increased amid an ongoing row over post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Frost is set to meet European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Friday, with the UK widely expected to trigger a suspension clause in the so-called Northern Ireland protocol.
The EU has warned of “serious consequences” if it does, prompting speculation the separate Brexit trade and cooperation deal could be pulled, and tariffs imposed.
But Frost told parliament that four weeks of talks were not yet over and still needed to properly examine several points.
“I certainly will not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done,” he told the upper House of Lords chamber. “We are certainly not at that point yet.”
But if that happened, “article 16 safeguards will be our only option”, he added, referring to the protocol’s suspension clause.
EU member Ireland’s government on Tuesday said it had met to discuss contingency planning in case talks break down, the UK suspends the protocol, and Brussels issues reprisals.
Deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar said the bloc may have “no option” but to introduce “balancing measures” if London triggered the break clause.
The possibility has led to wider fears about its impact on Northern Ireland, which endured three decades of violence over British rule before a landmark peace deal in 1998.
The protocol mandates checks on goods heading into Northern Ireland from mainland Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales.
It was designed to prevent unchecked goods heading into the European single market via Ireland, as an open border with Northern Ireland was a key plan of the 1998 peace deal.
The UK says the protocol is unworkable, while there has been unrest from hardline unionists in Northern Ireland who say it cuts them off from the rest of the country.
The EU has offered to cut checks on a range of goods heading to Northern Ireland but draws the line at a UK proposal to scrap European judicial oversight on disputes.
Frost said: “I gently suggest that our European friends should stay calm and keep things in proportion.
“They might remind themselves that no government, no country, has a greater interest in stability and security in Northern Ireland and in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement than this government.
“We’re hardly likely to proceed in a way that puts all that at risk.”
He added: “So that we can all move on, there is still a real opportunity to turn away from confrontation, to move beyond these current difficulties and put in place a new and better equilibrium.”