Brexit: Boris Johnson says solution to NI Protocol row 'easily doable' as EU says its patience with UK 'wearing very, very thin'

Thursday 10th June 2021 14:30 BST

Boris Johnson issued the upbeat assessment despite discussions between the UK and the EU over post-Brexit rules in Northern Ireland ending without an agreement being reached.

Brexit Minister Lord Frost said he and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic had broken up their discussions with "no breakthroughs and no breakdowns" with the EU on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Sefcovic described the EU as having reached "a crossroads" with the UK after Wednesday's talks and said the bloc's patience is "wearing very, very thin".

In a statement following the meeting between the pair, the government acknowledged the "urgent need for further discussions in order to make real progress".

"The UK will continue to put forward detailed proposals, as we have throughout this year, and looks forward to discussing any proposals the EU may put forward," it said.

Asked about the row as he arrived in Cornwall for the G7 summit, Mr Johnson said: "I think that what we want is something that enables us to protect trade flows, east/west, as well as north/south, and that's easily doable.

"I'm very very optimistic about this, I think that's easily doable.

"The reason to do that is because that is the way to preserve the essential balance of Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which has to look at things both north-south in the island of Ireland, but also east-west."

The PM added: "What we want to do is make sure that we can have a solution that guarantees the peace process and protects the peace process, but also guarantees the economic and territorial integrity of the whole United Kingdom. That's what it's all about."

The showdown talks come as Mr Johnson battles to avoid a sausage trade war with Brussels, which could see chilled meats barred from shops in Northern Ireland from the end of this month.

In a press conference on Thursday, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that leaders of the EU and the UK will discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol in a trilateral meeting at the G7 this weekend.

Prior to the meeting, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said both the UK and the EU are committed to consolidating the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and are "on the same page" over the protocol.

"There are details that we do need to resolve in order to ensure that the protocol works effectively but I know that the European team are committed to working with the UK Government to resolve those issues," he said.

Speaking after the three-and-a-half hour talks on Wednesday, Lord Frost said the "frank and honest discussions" had not resulted in a resolution, but that the two sides had agreed to carry on communicating.

"The problem we've got is the protocol is being implemented in a way which is causing disruption in Northern Ireland and we had some pretty frank and honest discussions about that situation today," he said.

"There weren't any breakthroughs. There aren't any breakdowns either and we're going to carry on talking.

"What we really now need to do is very urgently find some solutions which support the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, support the peace process in Northern Ireland and allow things to return to normal."

Calling for "pragmatic solutions" to be found, Lord Frost maintained that the EU is insisting the protocol is implemented in an "extremely purist way".

"What the EU is insisting on is we should operate the protocol in an extremely purist way. The reality is that it's a very balanced document that's designed to support the peace process and deal with the very sensitive politics in Northern Ireland," the Brexit minister said.

But Mr Sefcovic said Brussels has engaged "creatively and tirelessly" to find solutions for businesses and those living in Northern Ireland.

"There are still numerous and fundamental gaps in the UKs implementation of our agreement.

"These gaps need to be filled by a mutually agreed compliant path with concrete deadlines and milestones for the UK to fulfil its existing obligations.

"If the UK were to take further unilateral action in the coming weeks the EU will not be shy in acting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure the UK abides by its international obligations," he told reporters.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, President of the European Council Charles Michel said the EU will "use all the tools provided" to defend the Good Friday Agreement.

On the protocol, Ms von der Leyen said it is about "implementing what's been agreed".

Also on Thursday, Trade Minister Greg Hands said the UK has "submitted some very serious proposals to Brussels" about how to improve the situation.

Mr Hands told Sky News: "We need to find something that works well for everybody. The EU is following a very officious interpretation of a lot of these rules. We are looking for a more pragmatic approach."

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "Now the government really do need to step up and say why their oven-ready Brexit deal is already burnt, cindered and in the bin before we've even had a chance to taste it."

And Edwin Poots, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, repeated his call for the protocol to be scrapped.

"The engagement between Lord Frost and Maros Sefcovic has been described as 'frank' but more talking is not what Northern Ireland needs. We need the NI Protocol to be removed," he said.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was put in place to avoid the introduction of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

It states that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK's customs territory - so if the UK signs a free trade deal with another country, Northern Irish goods would be included.

However, Northern Ireland will have to stick to some EU rules to allow goods to move freely into the Republic.

Under the protocol, a ban will come into force if the UK and EU cannot agree on new regulatory standards to cover the sale of some products after a "grace period" allowed under the agreement.

In March, the UK unilaterally extended the grace period for supermarket goods and parcels for another six months, after it was due to finish at the end of that month.

The EU launched legal action against the UK for extending that grace period.

It is understood British ministers are now considering a unilateral extension for chilled meats, including sausages and mince, which is due to end on 30 June.

After the grace period, chilled meats produced in Great Britain will not be allowed to be sold in Northern Ireland as they are not from the EU, which has strict restrictions on food products.

Mr Sefcovic said retaliation by the EU would be so extreme it would ensure the UK "abides by its international law obligations".

The PM's spokesman has said there is "no case whatsoever" for blocking the sale of chilled meats.

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