Boris Johnson has threatened to unilaterally suspend the post-Brexit Northern Ireland treaty if Brussels does not relax customs checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Johnson warned that he would “obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16” if “the protocol continues to be applied in this way”.
The UK and EU both have the right to unilaterally trigger Article 16 and suspend the protocol if there are “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade” caused by the other side.
It comes as EU leaders earlier today told Johnson at the G7 summit that he must stick to the Northern Ireland Protocol or else face consequences.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after a bilateral meeting with Johnson that “we want the best possible relations with the UK” and that “both sides must implement what we agreed on” in regards to Northern Ireland.
Emmanuel Macron also reportedly told Johnson during a breakfast meeting that a reset of relations between the UK and France hinges on him honouring promises made in the Brexit treaty, according to the Financial Times.
The Prime Minister also met with German chancellor Angela Merkel where the issue was raised.
Speaking to Sky News, Johnson said: “I think that the treaty we signed, I signed, is perfectly reasonable. I don’t think that the interpretation or application of the protocol is sensible or pragmatic.
“I think the protocol can work if it’s sensibly applied but at the moment it’s not just a question of chilled meats or sausages, there are all kinds of impediments being constructed, and we need to sort it out.”
The UK and EU are in the midst of tense negotiations over how to implement the post-Brexit protocol, with Johnson’s government calling for a more relaxed approach on customs checks for goods going between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The UK government argues that the imposition of stringent checks are damaging the economy and leading to tensions in the unionist community.
One area of disagreement is the future of sausages produced in Great Britain as they are set to be banned in Northern Ireland from the end of this month.
Brussels has already threatened to launch a trade war with the UK if Johnson does not stick to the Northern Ireland Protocol on this issue.
“I think if the protocol continues to be applied in this way then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16 as I’ve said before and don’t forget the EU themselves invoked Article 16 in January to disapply the protocol so they could stop the movement of vaccines from the EU to the UK,” Johnson said.
A Downing Street spokesperson said today that “the Prime Minister’s desire is to work within the existing protocol to find radical changes and pragmatic solutions – that is our immediate focus”.
Johnson’s meeting with Macron comes after the French President issued a combative statement on Thursday about UK-EU talks over Northern Ireland, saying that “nothing is negotiable”.
A Downing Street statement on the meeting said the pair spoke this morning about “deepening the bilateral relationship between the UK and France”.
Speaking after today’s Macron-Johnson bilateral, an Elysée source told the FT: “The president, however, strongly underlined that this re-engagement requires the British to honour the promises made to Europeans and to respect the Brexit agreement.”
Northern Ireland still follows the EU’s customs union and single market rules, while the rest of the UK does not, in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
UK-EU minister Lord David Frost, who was in all three meetings this morning with EU leaders, has told Brussels they have been too inflexible on how to apply the protocol when it comes to checks at the border.
The EU, meanwhile, want to avoid unchecked food and medicines entering into its single market through Northern Ireland.
The row is set to blow up in a matter of weeks when the EU is due to ban chilled meats, like minced meat and sausages, being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
There has been until now a grace period that is due to end at the end of this month.
Johnson has threatened to unilaterally extend this grace period and ignore the ban – a move that Brussels has warned could lead to a retaliatory tariffs.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic earlier this week said his “patience is very, very, very thin”.
“If the UK were to take further unilateral action over the coming weeks, we will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international obligations,” he said.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab this morning accused the EU of being “bloody-minded and purist” and that “we will not allow the integrity of the UK to be threatened”.