EU Braces For A "Big Crisis" With Fears Boris Johnson Will Suspend Northern Ireland Protocol After COP26
European Union figures worry tensions with the UK are about to ramp up a notch, due to a growing expectation in Brussels that Boris Johnson will trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol after the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.
“We are in for a very bumpy few weeks," predicted an official in Dublin, reflecting a wider feeling that the UK-EU relationship, tested in recent days with a spat between the UK and France over fish, is about to come under even greater strain.
"The UK government risks doing huge damage to UK-EU relations and Anglo-Irish relations," they said.
Negotiations between UK and EU officials over how to change post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland are set to resume in Brussels on Wednesday, after talks in London last week failed to produce a major breakthrough.
Multiple EU figures have told PoliticsHome they are bracing themselves for Johnson to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol this month, once COP26 is out of the way.
The Prime Minister said last week that he believes the conditions for taking this action had been met.
Widely considered to be the nuclear option, triggering Article 16 would see the UK government unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol. Doing so would almost certainly prompt Brussels to deploy serious retaliatory measures against the UK, like slapping tariffs on British imports.
"It [the UK triggering Article 16] would be a big crisis, but we are ready for it," one Brussels official told PoliticsHome. "There are levers we can pull."
The EU recently offered to dramatically reduce the volume of checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in a bid to break the deadlock over the protocol, which both sides signed up to as part of Brexit negotiations.
But the UK negotiating team, led by Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, says these reductions do not go far enough to address Brexit-induced trade barriers in the Irish Sea.
Frost is also demanding that the European Court of Justice no longer polices the Northern Ireland Protocol — something which Brussels is currently refusing to consider.
A Downing Street spokesperson underlined this position on Tuesday. "Lord Frost has set out that there has been an element of progress made, but there are still some gaps, particularly on the governance of the protocol, which remains where the biggest difference still lies and our position on that remains," they said.
Exasperated EU figures say the UK is expanding its lists of demands around the protocol and rehashing arguments from earlier in the Brexit process that leaving the EU need not mean trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
There was also anger on Monday when Lord Frost used a foreword for the Policy Exchange think tank to accuse the EU of ignoring sensitivitives in Northern Ireland and destroying cross-community consent in its implementation of the treaty.
Frost said the EU's application of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which the government argues is overzealous and creating an unaceptable level of disruption in the province, had "begun to damage the thing it was designed to protect — the Belfast Good Friday Agreement".
One official in Brussels said the remarks were "jaw-dropping" and "incredibly provocative," while an Irish government source said they were "breathtakingly unhelpful".
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice-President, wrote in an article for The Telegraph at the weekend that he was concerned that Lord Frost was looking to "embark on a path of confrontation".
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