Britain’s leading Brexit official on Wednesday lowered the temperature in Britain’s trade feud with the European Union, saying he believed it was possible to reach an agreement with the bloc.
UK chief negotiator David Frost said there were still “gaps” between the two sides but added: “I’m glad there is ambition on the EU side … I think it can be done.”
“Whether it will be done is another question,” added Frost during a visit to Belfast to brief political leaders on UK-EU talks aimed at resolving differences over trade with Northern Ireland.
Negotiations have dragged on for a month and the UK is threatening to suspend parts of the legally binding divorce deal between the two sides if a solution is not found soon.
Frost said triggering an emergency clause known as Article 16 is “a very real option for us” when there is no deal. But he added that “our preference is certainly to try to solve it without using Article 16.”
Article 16 allows both sides to suspend parts of the Brexit agreement in extreme circumstances. An attempt by the UK to use it would spark retaliation by the EU and could lead to a trade war between the 27-nation bloc and its increasingly alienated former member.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and borders on EU member Ireland. As part of the Brexit deal, agreed before the UK left the bloc’s economic structures in late 2020, it remains within the duty-free internal market for EU goods to ensure that there is an open border on the island of Ireland – one important pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.
This created a new customs border in the Irish Sea for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK even though they are part of the same country.
It has also created bureaucracy for business and angered the British Unionists in Northern Ireland who say the checks are undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and destabilizing the delicate political balance on which peace is based.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which leads the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, is calling for the deal to be repealed, although many companies simply want the new trade agreements to work more smoothly.
The EU has agreed to make changes to the agreement, offering to reduce controls on food, plants and animals entering Northern Ireland by up to 80% and cut paperwork for transport companies in half.
Britain is calling on the EU to go further and remove its Supreme Court from its role in settling disputes over the deal – an idea the bloc flatly opposes.
Frost and his EU colleague Maros Sefcovic will meet on Friday to assess the status of the talks.
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