Talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol are “kind of stuck”, an EU source has told Sky News as Boris Johnson heads to Belfast to try to make headway on the issue.
The Brussels source said it was “not true or fair to say that we are being intransigent” and that the UK was asking for the kind of flexibility that has been offered to Ukraine even though “the UK is not at war”.
Ireland’s foreign minister foreign minister Simon Coveney warned that if Britain goes it alone in pulling out of the Protocol that could endanger its wider Brexit trade deal with the EU – an agreement which averted the threat of tariffs.
Downing Street insiders told Sky News political editor Beth Rigby that acting unilaterally on the protocol, which governs Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangement, remains “very much a last resort” and that the PM wants to “sort this out calmly and rationally, without drama”.
Yet in an article for the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson said there would be a “necessity to act” if Brussels does not agree to an overhaul of the arrangement – which has become an obstacle to reviving power-sharing at Stormont.
Later, the PM’s official spokesman said “urgent change” is required to the protocol, but insisted a “sensible landing zone” exists for a negotiated agreement with the EU – and did not rule out talks extending into the summer.
The prime minister’s trip to Northern Ireland comes after a call last week between foreign secretary Liz Truss and EU commission vice president Maros Sefcovic – a phone conversation that has previously been described as “tetchy” by UK government insiders.
But the EU source suggested it was worse than that, describing the call as “horrendous” and adding that they had “seldom seen Sefcovic so cross and so upset”.
The source added: “We are kind of stuck here.
“The UK says this about democracy and avoiding potential civil war, on the other side the EU says there is a deal you should implement – it’s not true or fair to say we are being rigid or intransigent.
“The UK is asking for the kind of flexibility that has been offered to Ukraine. But Ukraine is at war, so that is an exceptional measure.
“Firstly, the UK is not at war, and there is no serious risk of this. And secondly, this because of Brexit. This is a legitimate choice the UK has made.”
The protocol was designed to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the UK left the European Union.
But that means customs checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain – effectively a border in the Irish Sea separating the two.
That creates rancour in particular among unionists as well as, critics including the UK government say, disruption for firms and consumers across both communities.
An impasse over efforts to renegotiate the deal has been brought to a head by the recent assembly election results, which saw Sinn Fein become the biggest party in Northern Ireland for the first time.
Northern Ireland’s main unionist party, the DUP, has said it will not take part in a power-sharing devolved government with Sinn Fein unless what it has described as “the poison of the protocol” is removed.
Mr Johnson is due to hold talks with Northern Ireland’s party leaders in a bid to unfreeze the deadlock.
The government is preparing to publish legislation to override the protocol but Sky News understands there are still concerns in cabinet about the legal position.
The bill could be challenged in parliament or in the courts if it is deemed to have breached international law.
Mr Coveney, who was in Brussels on Monday, warned that the entire UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement deal – the TCA – could be jeopardised if Mr Johnson takes unilateral action.
He said with calmness, dialogue, compromise and partnership there could be “progress quickly to respond to the concerns of both the business community and the unionist community in Northern Ireland”.
Unilateral action by Britain would mean “tension, rancour, stand-offs, legal challenges and of course calls into question the functioning of the TCA itself”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, DUP leader, said: “The protocol is not working and is harmful to Northern Ireland. Those problems must be addressed.
“It is decisive action that must be taken.
“Until that action is taken, the consensus necessary for power-sharing in Northern Ireland does not exist.”