UK to make new offer on Northern Ireland in talks with EU

Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, is due to make fresh proposals to break the deadlock over post-Brexit trade deals in Northern Ireland on Friday, saying resolving the dispute with the EU was “a top priority”.

Truss’ allies have said the two sides want to iron out differences, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned this week that Britain could still unilaterally suspend parts of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol if no agreement was reached.

UK ministers have drawn up new contingency plans in recent weeks in case Johnson activates the Article 16 opt-out mechanism, possibly plunging the UK into a trade war with the EU.

Truss’ ‘carrot and stick’ approach aims to step up the pace of the talks, which both sides want to conclude, if possible, in the weeks after and before the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on May 5. .

Speaking ahead of talks in London with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, Truss said: “We have a shared responsibility with the EU to work as quickly as possible on solutions that benefit the people of North Ireland.”

Truss, who will host the talks at Lancaster House, wants to reset relations with the EU. Recently returned from Moscow, the Foreign Secretary told her colleagues that she wanted Europe to unite in the face of the Ukraine crisis, not sink into a trade dispute over Northern Ireland.

While Johnson would win acclaim from Tory Eurosceptics if he suspended parts of the NI Protocol – part of Britain’s Brexit Treaty – it would open up a range of unpredictable outcomes.

New ‘no deal’ contingency planning by ministers, which intensified in January, looked at issues such as the possible disruption of medical supplies in the event of a trade war in the EU, as well as much economic disruption wider.

Johnson, who is trying to stabilize his political situation after weeks of chaos, could also balk at the idea of ​​a trade dispute that could create unrest at ports and possible shortages of certain products.

Officials from both sides warned of a breakthrough in Friday’s talks, but said there was a shared determination to create a positive atmosphere ahead of the Feb. 21 meeting of the joint committee that handles post-trade deals. Brexit for Northern Ireland.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, all goods going from Britain into the region must follow EU customs and health rules leading to the creation of an ‘Irish Sea border’ that the British government has declared unsustainable.

A source with knowledge of the UK’s latest offer to the EU said ideas extended to the concept of ‘red and green channels’, in which goods clearly intended to remain in Northern Ireland would be exempt from border bureaucracy .

A British official confirmed that both sides were putting new ideas on the table: “We try to be constructive and by definition in negotiations both sides try to move towards each other.”

Despite Truss’ warmer tone, two senior Whitehall officials confirmed the government had actively “stepped up” contingency planning for the use of Section 16.

In October 2021, when Lord David Frost was still Britain’s Brexit minister, the UK government backed away from the threshold for triggering the safeguard mechanism after Brussels warned it would lead to the suspension of the wider trade deal between the EU and the UK.

However, Whitehall insiders said that since mid-January, contingency planning for a TCA suspension had quietly restarted under the leadership of Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Minister via the Domestic and Economic Cabinet Committee (Operations ).

According to a person familiar with the plans, Barclay has advised Johnson that if Article 16 is triggered, the government should consider replenishing drug stocks and prepare for disruptions at the Channel ports of Dover and Folkestone following further French retaliatory measures.

‘There is a major operation going on from the Cabinet Office which has caused alarm in parts of Whitehall,’ one of the people said. “It all calmed down after October, but really started to pick up speed last month.”

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