The EU says its patience is “wearing very thin” with the UK in talks aimed at avoiding a trade war over Northern Ireland border checks.
Exports of sausages and other chilled meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will effectively be banned at the end of the month.
The UK says it is ready to ignore the ban to prevent further disruption.
Top EU official Maros Sefcovic warned tariffs – taxes on imports – could be imposed if that happens.
Speaking after a meeting with the UK’s Brexit minister Lord Frost, Mr Sefcovic said he was “positive we can find a solution, where there is a will there is a way”.
But he added: “Our patience really is wearing very, very thin, and therefore we have to assess all options we have at our disposal.”
This could include legal action, arbitration or retaliatory trade measures such as tariffs, he explained.
He said “trust” had to be restored between the two sides, after the UK had broken the terms of the 2019 Northern Ireland protocol.
The UK has held back from carrying out full checks on supermarket goods and parcels moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, prompting the EU to accuse the UK of undermining the protocol and to begin legal proceedings.
UK sources close to the negotiations said: “Nobody wants to get into a trade war or anything close to it.”
It was “much better to find agreed ways forward”, added the source, and “the people in Northern Ireland want solutions not threats”.
“But unfortunately we have got used to living in an atmosphere where there are threats.”
Mr Sefcovic, a vice-president of the European Commission, said: “Today I can say we are at a crossroads in our relationship with the UK.
“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 said the EU had offered a temporary solution to the chilled meats row, ahead of a comprehensive trade deal, but he said the UK was not prepared to accept it because it would involve signing up to EU food standards.
“Ideology prevails over what is good for the people of Northern Ireland,” he added.
Speaking after his meeting with Mr Sefcovic, Lord Frost said the protocol was “being implemented in a way which is causing disruption in Northern Ireland and we had some pretty frank and honest discussions about that situation”.
“There weren’t any breakthroughs, there weren’t any breakdowns either and we are going to carry on talking,” he added.
“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.”
Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) no longer follows EU rules but Northern Ireland does – because it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
EU food safety rules do not allow chilled meat products to enter its market from non-members like the UK. Frozen meat is not covered by the rules.
In January, the two sides agreed a six month “grace” period to allow companies to set up alternative supply chains, but that runs out at the end of June.
Lord Frost said the EU was insisting that the two sides “operate the protocol in an extremely purist way” and he did not see any problem with continuing to allow exports of chilled meats.
“We don’t see what risk is caused to Northern Ireland if chilled meats are imported there from GB.”
What’s the impact?
Andrew Lynas owns a food service business serving the hospitality sector across Ireland.
He told Radio 4’s Today programme that the system was complex and bureaucratic.
“We buy cheese from a GB supplier and it used to be really simple. We’d place an order and three days later we would get the goods,” he said.
“Now we place an order and we have to fill in eight different bits of paperwork and that lead time that was four days has now become 12 days and that has a huge impact on our customers.”
He said there was an additional issue with goods coming from Europe: “I have an orange juice supplier in Spain, they then transport their goods to a warehouse in GB.
“We’ll then take some of those goods in to Ireland but I will have to charge a tariff to my customers in the Republic of Ireland.
“That doesn’t seem to make sense to me because the product doesn’t actually change from when it is made in Spain to when it maybe ends up with our consumer here in Ireland.”
Other disagreements over the protocol, which was meant to prevent the return of hard border in Northern Ireland, include medicine supplies, which are subject to post-Brexit red tape.
Medicines made in Great Britain have to be licensed separately for use on the island of Ireland – and undergo separate safety inspections before being released for patients.
Mr Sefcovic said the EU stood ready to amend its laws “to ensure the supply” of medicines, when a grace period ends at the end of 2021.
Progress has also been made on changing the rules to allow guide dogs to enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the two sides said.
Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill – who also took part in the meeting – challenged the UK government to “honour its commitments” on the Brexit protocol.
“Certainly there’s a frustration that the British government have signed up to this agreement, however they have failed to bring forward ways to implement the Protocol in its entirety,” she added.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said she will also raise Northern Ireland issues with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at this weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall.
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Date: 9 June 2021