EU warns of 'serious consequences' if Britain suspends Brexit deal

UK has indicated it could pause controversial trading arrangements in Northern Ireland

The P&O ferry port of Larne, Northern Ireland, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, situated north of Belfast handling freight and travel for the two hour crossing of the Irish Sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland.  According to news reports, the port is widely expected to build new border customs control posts as a result of Britain's Brexit split with Europe. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

The EU has warned Britain of “serious consequences” if the UK unilaterally suspends the controversial post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.

London and Brussels are at odds over trading arrangements which the UK says are too burdensome and are increasingly cutting Northern Ireland off from the mainland.

Britain has indicated that it will, if it deems necessary, use a procedure called Article 16 to suspend the deal.

But doing so would lead to “instability and unpredictability” in Northern Ireland, said Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s negotiator on Brexit issues.

It would also signal the “rejection of EU efforts to find a consensual solution” to the post-Brexit standoff, he said.

The tensions come amid a separate diplomatic dispute between Britain and France over fishing licences after Brexit.

Mr Sefcovic said a compromise on Northern Ireland he suggested last month, in which many checks on goods would be abolished, would make significant improvements.

He said it would effectively create an “express lane” that sidesteps the customs checks the UK describes as excessive.

“This was a big move by us. But until today, we have seen no move at all from the UK side,” Mr Sefcovic said.

“I find this disappointing and once again, I urge the UK government to engage with us sincerely.”

Limited progress

The UK government said the EU’s proposals were insufficient and described progress in Brexit talks as limited.

One point of contention is that Britain wants to scrap the European Court of Justice’s oversight of the deal, a move which Brussels opposes.

However, UK negotiator David Frost believes “gaps could still be bridged through further intensive discussions,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

Under the deal struck in 2019, goods are checked when they move to Northern Ireland so they are then clear to move on to the Republic of Ireland.

This avoids the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, which is regarded by all sides as unacceptable because of the risk of reigniting sectarian tensions.

But unionists in Northern Ireland say it is becoming increasingly isolated from the British mainland because of the Irish Sea trade border.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, told the EU to put Northern Ireland’s interests first.

He said Mr Sefcovic’s warning of serious consequences was intemperate and ill-advised.

“They ought to recognise that the protocol and its Irish Sea border is causing economic harm and undermining stability in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It is time the interests of Northern Ireland were put first by the EU rather than behaving in a manner which has brought us to the brink.”

Mr Donaldson said it was the trading protocol, not the potential invocation of Article 16, that posed a threat to stability in Northern Ireland.

But Sir John Major, a former UK prime minister who was in power during part of the 1990s peace process in Northern Ireland, said suspending the pact would be absurd.

“I think it would be colossally stupid to do that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He criticised Mr Frost and Prime Minister Boris Johnson for seeking to renegotiate the pact agreed only two years ago.

“The protocol is being denounced week after week by Lord Frost and the Prime Minister,” said Mr Major. “Who negotiated the wretched protocol? Lord Frost and the Prime Minister.”

Updated: November 6th 2021, 12:50 PM