EU accused of dragging Brexit talks into ‘trench warfare’ over Northern Ireland Protocol

American Age Official
Liz Truss with Maros Sefcovic in January. It is feared the discussions over the Northern Ireland Protocol have reached a stalemate - Valeria Mongelli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Liz Truss with Maros Sefcovic in January. It is feared the discussions over the Northern Ireland Protocol have reached a stalemate – Valeria Mongelli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Brussels has been accused of dragging Brexit talks into “trench warfare”, as UK sources bemoaned the bloc’s unwillingness to consider new ideas to end the Northern Ireland Protocol deadlock.

In the start of a bitter briefing war, British officials raised concerns over a “provocative” statement by Maros Sefocvic, the EU’s Brexit lead negotiator, which suggested the imposition of a hard border.

The Slovak diplomat said the bloc could impose checks on the island of Ireland to protect the EU Single Market in response to Edwin Poots, Stormont’s agriculture minister, attempting to halt checks on agri-food shipments from Britain.

Government sources told The Telegraph the intervention risked “escalating” tensions and showed a lack of understanding about the issues under discussion in efforts to end trade disruptions caused by the protocol.

“Their intervention risks taking us back to trench warfare,” one source said.

‘Not taking the situation seriously’

It was hoped that the replacement of David Frost with Liz Truss as lead negotiator would break the deadlock in the talks. However, the comments are the first sign the Foreign Secretary’s renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is faltering.

It was said the EU’s demand for Downing Street to override Stormont showed a basic lack of understanding of the political situation in Northern Ireland.

And negotiators fear the EU is reverting to its “greatest hits” by refusing to move beyond the bloc’s insufficient offers to end trade disruption caused by the protocol, which were made last October.

“It’s concerning that the EU doesn’t seem to understand the DUP, they seem to believe they’re Tories and not exactly taking the situation seriously,” the source added.

“We’ve been trying to stress the importance of keeping communications calm.”

The EU’s statement, made after talks between Ms Truss and Mr Sefcovic on Thursday, came despite customs controls never being ceased by officials at Northern Irish ports.

Following the discussions, Mr Sefcovic said: “These checks are necessary for Northern Ireland to benefit from access to the EU’s Single Market for goods.”

Under the protocol, the province follows a number of Single Market rules in order to avoid a hard border. However, the Government has argued this has had a chilling effect on trade and created an Irish Sea border.

Unionist complaints over the Brexit treaty, which they claim has driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, has sparked political turmoil in the region.

Shortly after the attempt to halt Brexit-related checks, the DUP’s Paul Givan, Northern Ireland’s first minister, quit – essentially causing power-sharing arrangements to collapse.

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On Friday, a High Court judge issued an interim order suspending the decision by Mr Poots.

Mr Justice Colton said he was making the temporary direction until a judicial review against the DUP minister’s decision can be heard in full.

British government officials have signalled they are unwilling to hold early elections, despite Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein automatically being stripped of her role of deputy first minister.

Both parties have seven days to reach a new agreement but that is unlikely. After that Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, must set a date for elections.

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