According to a senior British minister, the United Kingdom is still willing to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol if the European Union refuses to meet its demands.
“We haven’t stepped back from the idea of triggering Article 16,” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said Thursday in an interview in London. “Our focus at the moment is around these ongoing negotiations to try and get a solution, but we are also crystal clear: That can’t go on forever.”
Lewis was speaking after the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, told EU ambassadors behind closed doors on Wednesday that the United Kingdom's threat to withdraw from parts of the Brexit agreement relating to trade with Northern Ireland may be off the table for the time being.
Goods shipped into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain are subject to customs checks under the 2019 Brexit agreement if they are at risk of being moved into the EU later. Britain is calling for changes to that agreement, claiming that it has hampered trade between different parts of the country.
The EU, for its part, has indicated that if the British follow through on their threat to invoke Article 16, it may suspend the entire trade agreement with the UK.
Following a meeting with his British counterpart David Frost in London last week, EU Brexit chief Maros Sefcovic reported an improved tone in negotiations. The two will meet again in Brussels on Friday.
That shift in tone, however, has yet to translate into any meaningful shift in British demands for a renegotiation of the protocol, which allowed the United Kingdom to leave the EU's single market without establishing a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“The EU in the last week or so seems to have just eased a little bit in terms of wanting to find a solution on customs and various things and that’s got to be a good thing,” Lewis said. “We want to get a negotiated outcome because that gives more certainty and stability, and that’s good for Northern Ireland. But if we can’t, we will trigger Article 16 because that is how the protocol works.”