Lord Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, has been attacked by two key EU countries before a key meeting for his criticism of the bloc’s “inflexible” approach to the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, has suggested Frost has been more focused on “media messaging” in the UK in recent weeks rather than problem-solving.
France’s minister for EU affairs, Clément Beaune, suggested the UK minister had “called into question” the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The protocol “is not the problem. It is the solution to a problem that we have not created”, Beaune tweeted.
The difficult atmosphere comes as the US president, Joe Biden, is expected to express concerns to Boris Johnson at the G7 summit over the impact of the dispute on peace in Northern Ireland.
Relations between the UK and the EU have been tempestuous since the country left the single market and customs union in January, with the arrangements for goods and even pets crossing the Irish Sea being among the most difficult issues.
Under a protocol in the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland in effect remains in the single market and EU customs policy is enforced on goods coming from Great Britain.
One of the thorniest problems related to this arrangement is the subsequent need for controls on food of animal origin and plants entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain and the paperwork relating to goods coming over the Irish Sea.
Over the weekend, Frost wrote in the Financial Times that the impact on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK from those arrangements had been underestimated and that a change in approach and some “common sense” was required from Brussels.
Frost is meeting Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission’s Brexit commissioner, in London on Wednesday to try to find solutions to the red tape that it is claimed is the cause of recent political instability in Northern Ireland. There has been recent loyalist violence in Northern Ireland from some who claim their British identity is being brought into question.
Coveney summed up the frustration felt in Brussels by insisting it was the UK government’s intransigence that was standing in the way of solutions.
“Lord Frost continues to lay blame for difficulty with Protocol at EU inflexibility,”he tweeted. “This is simply not the case. [Šefčovič] & EU have consistently proposed new solutions. Is this about media messaging in UK or really solving problems together?”
The EU has proposed that 80% of checks at Northern Ireland’s ports could be dispensed with if the UK agreed to align with the bloc’s sanitary and phytosanitary rulebook.
On Monday, Frost reiterated his rejection of any “veterinary agreement” that would force the UK to in effect adopt EU law as it developed.
He said however, that he had submitted a pragmatic alternative last week. Under the proposal, there would be agreement on common high standards on food safety, animal health and pet health for both sides. If the UK diverged from those standards, both sides would agree on what kind of mitigation could be used to minimise the risk to the EU’s single market.
“We have already sent a proposal to the EU – it’s just not one based on alignment, ie losing control over our own laws,” Frost tweeted. “We continue to be happy to talk whenever the EU is ready.”