The post-Brexit Northern Ireland treaty will not be “sustainable for long” without significant changes, according to Boris Johnson’s minister for UK-EU relations.
Lord David Frost said the Northern Ireland Protocol, which sees Northern Ireland follow EU customs union and single market rules, posed “significant challenges” for businesses, while urging the EU to act with “common sense” when applying it.
Frost is locked in discussions with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on how to apply the protocol, after Brussels launched legal action against the UK over the full implementation of the treaty.
In a statement released after a visit to Northern Ireland, Frost said: “Businesses have gone to extraordinary efforts to make the current requirements work, but it is hard to see that the way the protocol is currently operating can be sustainable for long.”
The protocol has been met with fury by some parts of the unionist community for creating a so-called border in the Irish sea, which sees Northern Ireland treated differently to the rest of the UK.
Under the protocol, there will need to be customs checks on things like food, parcels and medicines going between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The UK moved two months ago to unilaterally postpone these checks until October, which infuriated Brussels officials as they labelled it a breach of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Frost argued at the time that it was necessary to ensure Northern Ireland businesses were prepared for the changes and so there would not be shortages of goods, however the EU responded by launching legal action.
The protocol, combined with Brussels’ quickly overturned move in January to break the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, has sparked growing anger in Northern Ireland unionist communities.
This is one of the reasons behind almost two weeks of violent rioting seen in Belfast last month, while Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster was forced to quit over anger from within her Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) about the post-Brexit arrangements.
The Financial Times reports that London and Brussels officials are far apart in negotiations to try and work out how to implement the protocol, particularly on things like animal and plant products that require border checks.
Frost said the UK would continue to negotiate “urgently and in good faith”, while also telling Brussels to take a “risk-based approach”.
Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, told the FT: “The business community remains committed to making the protocol work, but confidence is falling, which is worrying. Both sides need to work together to make this deal work, because if the business community loses faith in the protocol, the risk of unilateral actions rise.”