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Lord Frost has warned a “big gap” remains between the UK and EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol, insisting Brussels must make a “significant” concession over the vexed issue of governance if there is to be a deal.
It comes after the bloc offered a package of major compromises aimed at cutting red tape and easing the transit of goods between Great Britain to Northern Ireland following months of disruption.
However, Lord Frost made clear on Friday that the proposals as they stand are unacceptable – insisting the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in resolving trade disputes is removed.
“They will need to if we are to find a solution – there needs to be significant change if we are to get an agreed solution,” the minister told Politico.
“All I can say is the governance issue needs to be addressed seriously and if the EU are willing to have a conversation about that on which they move off existing positions obviously we will be happy to have that conversation.”
In separate remarks before a working lunch with the European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels, Lord Frost told reporters the EU had “definitely made an effort in pushing beyond where they typically go in these areas”.
But he added: “Obviously there is still quite a big gap and that’s what we’ve got to work through today and in the future.”
Lord Frost did offer some warms words for the trade proposals, however, after the Commission tabled measures to slash 80 per cent of regulatory checks and dramatically cut customs processes on the movement of goods, especially food and farming produce, between Britain and the island of Ireland.
“We do recognise that the EU has made an effort here,” said Lord Frost. “The detail is important, but we are studying them constructively. Clearly they have proposed some changes, we do need to understand that detail and we’ve begun that conversation, but there’s quite a long way to go.”
However, Lord Frost insisted that the British demand for an end to the role of the European court in arbitration – despite signing up to exactly that just two years ago – is “where we need to end up”.
The Brexit negotiator said: “Obviously theirs is not the only proposal on the table and our Command Paper and the legal text that we sent the Commission this week are where we need to end up, and we need to begin that conversation.”
Sefcovic has insisted the role of the court will remain in place as previously agreed. “We cannot have access to the single market without the supervision of the European Court of Justice.”
The EU chief also said he said he has no mandate to “renegotiate” the protocol after he spoke to Northern Ireland’s political leaders on Thursday.
“I have no mandate to renegotiate the protocol … the withdrawal agreement, protocol and trade and cooperation agreement, we signed it, we ratified it, it’s international law and I think we should respect it,” Sefcovic said.
Some EU member states have reportedly urged Brussels chiefs to draw up contingency plans for a trade war with the UK should both sides fail to reach an agreement.
France, Germany and the Netherlands are pushing for the EU to be ready with retaliatory measures if the UK triggers Article 16 to suspend trading arrangements in the protocol, according to the Financial Times.
Boris Johnson signed up to protocol as part of his Brexit agreement in 2020, but has since argued it was agreed in haste and was no longer working for the people of Northern Ireland.
The prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings said earlier this week that Downing Street’s plan was always to “ditch the bits we didn’t like”.
Senior DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr also claimed Johnson made a personal promise that he could later “tear up” any protocol commitments made with the EU.
Frost denied that he had planned to tear up the Brexit deal he signed last year, but claimed that the protocol arrangements were always “a little bit provisional and open to review”.
He said: “We knew that some elements of the protocol would possibly be difficult to make work in practice, and some aspects of it were left open for the discussions in 2020 and afterwards.”