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Lord Frost Says Covid Stopped Government Triggering Article 16 Before Christmas

4 min read

Boris Johnson didn't trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol before Christmas because of the surge in Covid cases, according to his former Brexit minister Lord Frost.

Frost said neither him nor the Prime Minister would have "any difficulty" triggering Article 16 "at the right moment".

But when deadlocked EU-UK trade talks led to renewed speculation the UK was about to reach for the controversial option late last year, the fresh challenge of the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant of coronavirus led government to decide against doing it, he claimed.

Frost, who quit as the UK's Brexit minister in December, has again urged the government to take unilateral action on the Northern Ireland Protocol in a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank on Wednesday.

The protocol, agreed by the government in its Brexit negotiations with the European Union, has resulted in a "very serious situation" in Northern Ireland, Frost said, adding that the Good Friday peace deal, which brought an end to decades of civil conflict, was on "life support".

The post-Brexit treaty was designed to avoid a contentious hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and resulted in Northern Ireland staying wedded to EU trade rules.

However, it has led to checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which unionist parties in the province, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), strongly oppose. Both the UK and EU are committed to renegotiating the protocol but are far away from an agreement after many months of talks, which Frost formerly led for the UK.

The government has faced pressure from the DUP and many Conservative MPs to effectively disapply the protocol by taking the contentious step of triggering Article 16 of the treaty. 

PoliticsHome understands there were serious discussions among ministers about doing so before Christmas, but that Johnson decided not to after talks with his ministers. It was reported at the time that Chancellor Rishi Sunak warned that risking a trade war with Brussels was unwise when the country's supply chains were already under strain from the pandemic and post-Brexit labour shortages.

When asked by PoliticsHome today, Frost refused to disclose names of individual Cabinet members who opposed triggering Article 16.

However, he revealed that the quick rise in Omicron cases, which prompted the swift rollout of the third Covid vaccine, was a key reason why the Prime Minister decided not to trigger Article 16. 

“We had been considering Article 16 all year last year,” Frost said.

“The important thing is the timing is right and that if the government does use Article 16, it’s done in a legally sound and effective way," he continued. 

"Last autumn there was a lot else going on, notably another potential descent into lockdown, and all of that context got taken into account.”

He said that Russia's invasion of Ukraine meant EU countries were less likely to support trade retaliation against the UK should Johnson decide to trigger Article 16 in the coming weeks.

"Our relationship with Poland, the Balts, and other central Europeans has become a hugely important element in managing the ongoing crisis," he said.

"It may be that some member states who in the past would have been content to tuck in behind a Commission-France-Germany axis in imposing trade sanctions on the UK, would now no longer be ready to do so and indeed would see this as entirely self-defeating. 

"Some might even welcome the prospect of a definitive fix, however it came, to the seemingly endless problems created by the Protocol. If so, it would be a welcome return of realism to the EU's collective behaviour, and very much in the right spirit for our future relationship".

Frost also sought to brush off suggestions that the government's plan to override the protocol through primary legislation, which PoliticsHome understands could be included in the upcoming Queen's Speech, would damage the UK's reputation on the world stage. 

He said that while overriding the treaty through legislation would breach the terms of the international agreement, it should not "raise any issues of wider UK compliance with international law".

"On the wider issues, our track record speaks for itself. The UK is one of the most outspoken advocates of an international system based on agreed rules," Frost said.


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