Boris Johnson today claimed he was “optimistic” about a satisfactory settlement of the UK’s latest row with the EU over trade with Northern Ireland, insisting that critics who have accused him of burning up trust and goodwill with Brussels would be “pleasantly surprised” by the outcome.
The EU is threatening legal action after London said for the second time that it was prepared unilaterally to tear up the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated as part of Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal, which created a customs border in the Irish Sea.
But speaking at a 10 Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson insisted that “goodwill and imagination” were all that was needed to iron out what he claimed were “teething problems”.
Brexit minister Lord Frost has insisted that the UK’s plan to delay until October checks on supermarket goods and parcels entering Northern Ireland is “lawful”, despite an agreement reached with the EU that initial “grace periods” should expire in April and July.
He used a newspaper article at the weekend to accuse Brussels of being driven by “ill-will” towards the UK.
European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer shrugged off Lord Frost’s accusations, telling a Brussels press conference: “We never sulk. We don’t have moods. We are an institution, so we try to work on a day-to-day basis with a very, very even temper.”
And Mr Johnson’s government was itself accused by Theresa May’s former chief of staff Gavin Barwell of “dishonesty” in its approach to the protocol.
And the former civil service head of the Department for Exiting the EU said the Johnson administration was “burning” trust and goodwill with Brussels by “playing games around Brexit” for domestic political reasons.
Philip Rycroft told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “It is deeply worrying and frankly deeply depressing that with the ink barely dry on the protocol and on the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, we’re already running into these sorts of problems. Brexit, far from being done, is going to be with us for a long time to come.”
Mr Rycroft said that problems in Northern Ireland were caused in part by the government misleading local traders about the likely impact of Mr Johnson’s deal, which requires time-consuming checks on goods moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
“There are undoubtedly issues about the protocol,” he said.
“Traders simply aren’t ready to do the things that are required on the protocol, not leastbecause the government spent the best part of last year saying to them they wouldn’t have to do anything, despite knowing full well that all of these checks would have to come in.
“Extending those grace periods is not an unreasonable thing to ask for, butthe way that David Frost has gone about this, to tell the Commission he was unilaterally extending without doing his opposite number in the Commission the courtesy of picking up the phone, suggests that they’re still playing games around Brexit.
“It’s all about the politically attractive ploy of playing hardball with the EU, rather than accepting their responsibilities for the deal that he and the prime minister negotiated.” Mr Rycroft said: “This is a complicated deal, the Northern Ireland Protocol, it’s the least worst option, it’s there to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“It is so important to the peace process in Northern Ireland that this protocol is able to work and that’s going to require a huge amount of goodwill and trust on both sides, I’m afraid that trust is being burnt at the moment.”
But asked about the protocol at a 10 Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson insisted that he still believed he had secured “a great deal”.
“Insofar as there have been teething problems - and there’s no question that there have been - we’re fixing those now with some temporary technical things that we’re doing to smooth flow, which I think are very, very sensible,” said the PM.
“I’m sure that they can all be ironed out, sorted out - insofar as the EU objects to that - with goodwill and with imagination and that’s what we intend to bring to it and I’m sure that our friends will as well.”
Lord Barwell said that Lord Frost was “adding insult to injury” for the people of Northern Ireland by refusing to acknowledge the barriers to trade that are the consequence of the Brexit deal which he negotiated, which “explicitly created barriers when goods move from GB to NI”.
The former 10 Downing Street chief of staff said it was “dishonest” to pretend that Brexit bureaucracy was not having a harmful impact on trade.
“The deal which David Frost negotiated does not keep ‘open and free trade’ between the UK and EU - it introduces significant barriers to trade,” said Lord Barwell.
“Dismissing the difficulties he has caused for many businesses as ‘the details of customs and form-filling’ adds insult to injury
“His argument that setting your own laws in every area of national life is ‘vital to economic success’ will come as news to countries like Ireland that have grown strongly whilst members of the EU and music to the ears of the SNP.
“No-one is suggesting that bureaucracy prevents trade altogether, but introducing it clearly has a cost and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise. If you think other benefits outweigh those costs make that case, but don’t pretend trade with the EU is as free today as it was in 2020.
“Why do you expect open and free trade within the UK? Our government signed a treaty that explicitly created barriers when goods move from GB to NI.”