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A deal between the UK and EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol looks “unlikely” unless Brussels makes further concessions, the DUP leader has said.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there would need to be a “marked change” in position from the EU to secure agreement.
He said in such circumstances the UK Government was right to make plans to suspend the post-Brexit arrangements covering Irish Sea trade by triggering Article 16.
Sir Jeffrey, who described the negotiations as “high politics”, criticised suggestions that the EU was preparing to take retaliatory action if the UK moved to activate Article 16, potentially in the form of suspending the Brexit trade deal.
“I hope we don’t get to a situation where there is a trade war between the UK and the European Union, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests that that is the outcome,” the DUP leader told reporters at Belfast City Airport.
“The meeting I had yesterday with (Brexit minister) Lord Frost certainly suggested that from the UK’s perspective, there’s still a couple of weeks left in these negotiations.
“Although it is evident at the moment that in the absence of the EU stepping up and putting firmer proposals on the table, more realistic proposals on the table, I think a positive outcome in terms of an agreed solution is unlikely and, in those circumstances, I do expect the UK Government to take unilateral action to address the difficulties created by the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
Sir Jeffrey said Article 16 was an agreed mechanism within the structure of the protocol and the UK was “perfectly entitled” to trigger it.
“The EU agreed to this mechanism in the first place and therefore I think the EU needs to recognise that the UK is legally entitled to take this action and the action is designed to resolve the issues, to remove the problems created by the Irish Sea border – it isn’t about impinging upon the EU single market, it’s about protecting the UK internal market. I think the United Kingdom is entitled to do that,” he said.
“The sense I have is that the talks are moving towards a conclusion now, one way or the other. There’s no point in dragging this out. And let’s not forget that every day the protocol continues to operate it harms the economy. And that’s not good enough.
“The UK Government is right to make contingency plans that if the EU isn’t prepared to adopt a reasonable position to get agreement then the UK is perfectly legally entitled to trigger Article 16.
“Hopefully that will at least mark a beginning to the process of resolving these issues and very quickly restore some degree of normality to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Sir Jeffrey said suggestions the EU was preparing to take retaliatory action if the UK moved to activate Article 16 did not suggest Brussels was up for making a deal.
“I think that the UK Government does want to get an outcome from this, I think the UK Government does want to arrive at an agreement,” he said.
“Being realistic, I think it’s unlikely that’s going to happen unless we see a marked change on the part of the EU and, frankly, while the UK remains at the table and shows a willingness to negotiate I think it is unfortunate that the EU is ramping up the rhetoric, is talking about contingency plans, is talking about the possibility of a trade war.
“That does nothing to suggest that they are genuinely engaged in trying to find a solution here.”