Lord Frost: “Significant gaps remain” in NI Protocol talks

Published by Scott Challinor on November 22nd 2021, 12:12pm

UK Brexit minister Lord Frost has acknowledged that some progress was made in last week’s talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol but warned that “significant gaps remain” in the search for a resolution.

Lord Frost [pictured] was speaking ahead of the next round of talks due to take place in London this Friday.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the mechanism within the Brexit deal agreed between the UK and the EU which prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland. In practice it sees Northern Ireland remain within the EU single market for goods, ensuring flee flow of trade between it and the Republic of Ireland.

However, this has created issues for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, with goods arriving from GB subject to checks and control.

The EU has acknowledged that this so-called “Irish Sea border” is causing difficulties to businesses and that the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol should therefore be changed.

On the other hand, the UK is pursuing greater changes to the Protocol’s operation and governance.

Lord Frost’s counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission, said that there had been progress in talks over the key issue of guaranteeing the supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The Slovak diplomat added: “We now need to press on and get this crucial issue across the line. This is a real test of political goodwill.”

Lord Frost said that with medicines, it was critical that any solution had to ensure that products would be available at the same time and on the same basis across the entirety of the UK.

While Šefčovič revealed that there had been “initial useful engagement at a technical level” on the issue of customs, Lord Frost said that “substantive progress” was lacking on the “fundamental customs and SPS [agrifood] issues relating to goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”.

Lord Frost later penned in The Mail on Sunday that the EU had to show “urgency” in the talks to find solutions.

Addressing the issue around customs, Lord Frost has suggested that the UK and EU must agree that goods originating from Great Britain which are intended to remain within Northern Ireland “should not be treated as if they were moving from one country to another” and only goods which are proceeding into the Republic of Ireland should be subject to checks and controls.

Meanwhile, Šefčovič informed the BBC that the focus of the talks was always “on the key priorities and problems we have to solve”, with the major issues of medicine supply, customs formalities, SPS [agrifood] checks and better involving Northern Ireland stakeholders in the dealings of the Protocol being the main discussion points.

He said: “If we can find a way to solve these problems, we are opening the way for a smooth operation of the Protocol.

“My feeling is the Northern Irish people want us to work together to look for a way for the Protocol to work properly and in the smoothest possible way.

"We have been putting proposals on the table on solving the uninterrupted supply of medicines to NI since June and I remember Lord Frost telling me that what is important for him is not only content but also process. I was waiting to see if he can deliver on that solution jointly and I have to say that until today that has not been the case.”

UK housing secretary Michael Gove, the former chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has said that he is confident that the sticking points in the talks can be resolved without the need to trigger Article 16.

Article 16 of the Protocol allows for unilateral safeguarding measures to be taken which would override parts of the deal, if the Northern Ireland Protocol is leading to serious practical problems or posing a barrier to trade.

Lord Frost said on Thursday last week that invoking Article 16 was still on the table for the UK, although the EU maintains its position that the current conditions are unjust for it to be triggered.

Gove believes that the disruption to trade caused by the Protocol already satisfied the conditions for Article 16 to be activated, but has welcomed the bloc’s willingness to engage constructively in finding other solutions.

Speaking in Cardiff at the British-Irish Council summit, Gove said that Lord Frost indicated that although Article 16 may at one point be required, that the UK government was “confident” in being able to “make progress without it”.

Also speaking last Thursday, the Republic of Ireland's premier, Micheál Martin, said that there was “serious intent” on the EU side to resolve the issues unfolding in Northern Ireland and that the tone of negotiations had improved in recent weeks.

Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons

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Scott Challinor
Business Editor
November 22nd 2021, 12:12pm

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