Boris Johnson has been urged by Brussels to focus on the “proper implementation” of post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, rather than threatening to suspend them.
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president, will travel to London next week to try to defuse growing tensions in Northern Ireland and head off calls for a radical rewriting of the Brexit protocol covering the region.
Mr Sefcovic held what were officially described as “constructive” talks with British and Northern Ireland politicians on Wednesday, but there are frustrations in Brussels at the mounting sense of crisis.
Boris Johnson added to that mood on Wednesday when he told MPs he could invoke emergency measures to ensure there was no “barrier of any kind in the Irish Sea”.
Mr Johnson said he would legislate if necessary or use emergency override powers — Article 16 in the Northern Ireland protocol, which forms part of the UK’s 2019 Brexit treaty with Brussels — to maintain the free flow of trade between Great Britain and the region.
But Mr Sefcovic told the Irish broadcaster RTE that the protocol already included “flexibility” to minimise border friction on such trade and urged the UK to “use and put into practice that flexibility”.
He added that “the United Kingdom should deliver on what they committed to do, that we would have proper implementation of the protocol. For us this is absolutely key for avoiding a hard border, for maintaining the peace, for really delivering on what we promised to the people in the Northern Ireland and Ireland”.
The rhetoric from both sides highlights sharp differences in how they view the debate over Article 16 and the fallout from the European Commission’s abortive move to invoke it last week.
EU officials and member state diplomats believe the decision to trigger the Article 16 provisions stop the flow of vaccines into Northern Ireland — published and then pulled on Friday — was a big mistake but not one with long-term implications.
Pro-UK unionists, including Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, have seen Brussels’s willingness to consider overriding the protocol as a justification for a thorough review of the way it operates.
Mrs Foster has called on the British government to find “permanent solutions” to problems created by the protocol in relation to trade in goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The extra checks on trade across the Irish Sea are needed because the Brexit deal left Northern Ireland inside the EU single market for goods and under Brussels customs rules. Both sides agreed on the need to avoid any checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Mrs Foster’s growing hostility to the protocol and threats made towards port workers who carry out trade checks in Belfast and Larne have convinced British ministers that reforms to the protocol are needed to maintain the peace process.
Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, has asked Mr Sefcovic to agree to extend “grace periods” — the suspension of normal checks — for trade in goods like parcels, chilled meat, supermarket supplies and medicines until 2023.
But Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, said the EU wanted to be “pragmatic and constructive” in resolving “teething problems” with the protocol, which is seen as vital in maintaining the open border on the island of Ireland.
“There are clearly some issues that need to be resolved, but we need to focus very much on providing political leadership to find those issues as opposed to trying to tear down an agreement that was four years in the making,” she told RTE.
Ms O'Neill added: “The DUP approach is unrealistic, there's no sense of renegotiating the protocol, so they need to dial down the rhetoric, they need to be focused on trying to find solutions to the outstanding issues.”
Inspections at Belfast and Larne ports were still suspended on Thursday for a third successive day, Northern Ireland's agriculture department said. “[The] situation remains unchanged at present.”