Progress on protocol possible without triggering Article 16 – Gove

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Progress on negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol can be made without triggering Article 16, Michael Gove has said.

Fresh talks between UK Brexit minster Lord David Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic are taking place on Friday.

Cabinet minister Mr Gove expressed confidence that talks can progress without the need for the UK to trigger Article 16, which would suspend elements of the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Speaking at the British-Irish Council summit in Cardiff, Mr Gove said: “I do believe that there is a constructive approach that’s being taken by the Commission and Lord Frost has signalled that while, of course, it’s always possible that Article 16 may require to be invoked, we’re confident that we’ll be able to make progress without it.”

Asked if the UK Government could guarantee it would not trigger Article 16, Mr Gove told the summit press conference: “There is a determination on the part of the British Government, the European Commission, the Irish government and others to make progress.

“There’s a shared recognition that we do need to alter the operation of the protocol on the ground.

“I hope that we won’t need to trigger Article 16, for reasons that will be well understood, but we reserve the right to do so if we believe that changes which are required on the ground in Northern Ireland have not been made.”

Irish premier Micheal Martin said he believes there is “a genuine desire” on all sides to resolve the protocol dispute without the use of Article 16.

He told the summit: “I believe that in the discussions I’ve had now over the last while, that there is a genuine desire on all sides to get this resolved through negotiation, and through the avoidance of triggering any particular mechanisms within the Withdrawal Agreement.

“It’s clear in the discussions this morning from all participants, an acknowledgement of the challenges of Covid to supply chains, the challenges of Brexit and what that means.

“The last thing we need is further disruption and, rather, the focus should be on resolving this.”

But Brexit Minister Lord Frost has played down the prospects of a breakthrough in talks with the EU.

Arriving for talks in Brussels with Mr Sefcovic, Lord Frost said there were still “significant gaps” between the two sides.

He reiterated that the UK could trigger Article 16, suspending part of the arrangements, if there was no agreement.

“Our preference is to see if we can find a negotiated way through this problem. If we can’t, Article 16 remains on the table,” he told reporters.

“There are a number of issues that need to be fixed if we are going to resolve this problem. There are still really quite significant gaps between us.

“I wouldn’t expect any breakthroughs today but there are some issues that we are making better progress on than others.”

He added: “Article 16 is a legitimate provision in the protocol, it is part of the protocol, it is there to provide safeguards in the event of difficulties which are spelt out in the protocol.”

Earlier, Mr Sefcovic said new measures on the protocol will create an “express line” on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, resulting in a “win-win situation” for all.

He said the bloc will offer to permanently slash customs paperwork by 50%, along with the removal of up to 80% of checks.

Mr Sefcovic was speaking at the Brexit Institute at Dublin City University on Friday, immediately before crunch talks with his counterpart.

He called on the UK to “reciprocate” but welcomed the recent “change in tone” in talks.

Mr Sefcovic said the “comprehensive long-term solution” that would see “further facilitation and simplification” of customs checks will result in a “50% permanent reduction in existing paperwork”.

He added: “These measures would create a type of express line, which would substantially facilitate trade between all parties, a win-win situation for all.

“It is a unique and completely new model for how goods can be moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, one that will strengthen opportunities for people and businesses alike.”

He added: “It will make the application of the protocol more transparent while at the same time respecting the UK’s constitutional order.

“A website will also be set up to show in a clear and comprehensive way the EU legislation applicable in Northern Ireland.”

Maros Sefcovic
Mr Sefcovic, speaking in London earlier (Hollie Adams/PA)

However, Mr Sefcovic has warned that the post-Brexit trade deal is “intrinsically linked” to settling the withdrawal agreement, which includes the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“Settling the divorce has always been and remains a precondition for our future relationship” he said.

“It was on this basis that we negotiated, concluded and ratified the trade and co-operation agreement on Christmas Eve last year.

“The two agreements are intrinsically linked, one cannot exist without the other.”

Mr Sefcovic also welcomed a “change in tone” from the UK Government in negotiations on the protocol, but said they now must reciprocate on the measures.

He said: “Right now we need the UK Government to reciprocate the significant move the EU has made.

“I notice and welcome a recent change in tone from the UK Government and we hope that actions will follow the words.”

Conservative Party Conference
Lord David Frost (Peter Byrne/PA)

However, he ruled out a renegotiation of the protocol.

He said: “Our solutions can become reality if the UK plays its part. That is why we have engaged constructively with the UK in order to agree joint solutions.

“But we also make clear, with the full support of the European Parliament and the member states, that we will not renegotiate the protocol.

“To do so would mean to put at risk the stability in Northern Ireland and it would be unnecessary because solutions are available within the framework of the protocol.”

Mr Sefcovic said Northern Ireland could “benefit immensely” from having dual access to the EU’s single market and the UK internal market.

“Northern Ireland is a unique place to invest and should be a powerful magnet for foreign investment” because of its “unparalleled access to two of the world’s largest markets”, he said.

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