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Labour Thinks Boris Johnson Might Trigger Article 16 To Distract From Fuel And Food Shortages

3 min read

A senior Labour figure has raised concern that Boris Johnson might escalate tensions with the European Union by triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to distract from negative headlines at home.

Baroness Jenny Chapman, who leads on Brexit for Labour in the House of Lords, said she worried the government will be tempted to suspend parts of the protocol, triggering a new diplomatic row with Brussels and plunging Northern Ireland into greater uncertainty, to divert attention from ongoing reports of labour shortages and everyday items like food and petrol running out. 

"The government is in a really sticky situation at the moment and it’s not enjoying the headlines about people queueing at petrol stations," she told a fringe event hosted by the Centre for European Reform at Labour's conference in Brighton.

"They will not enjoy the fact that Labour, against everyone’s predictions, is having a good conference," she continued.  

"Keir will give a great speech tomorrow and people will like it. Polls are tightening.

"I am ashamed to say this about our government, but I think this all makes it more likely that it will trigger Article 16.

"They could take other routes, but they like the drama of it and they will seek to use it for their own party political advantage.

"That’s exactly how they’ve managed these negotiations for a very long time."

Chapman's remarks come amid growing speculation that the government could trigger Article 16 in the next few weeks as it remains at loggerheads with the EU over how to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Johnson wants the treaty, which was agreed as part of his Brexit deal, to effectively be renegotiated. Brussels on the other hand says it is only prepared to make changes within the existing framework of the treaty.

Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, who handles the UK's post-Brexit dealings with the EU, has threatened repeatedly in recent weeks to trigger Article 16, arguing that the Protocol is causing an unacceptable level of disruption to businesses and day-to-day life in Northern Ireland.

Doing so is widely considered to be the nuclear option, however, and would likely result in legal action from Brussels.

While there is growing talk of the government triggering Article 16, EU sources who PoliticsHome has spoken to this week believe it is an attempt to pressure Brussels into more concessions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and that it won't fulfill its threat. 

Speaking at the same event, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said triggering Article 16 would be "deeply unhelpful" and urged the Prime Minister to "dial down the rhetoric".

"We should approach the very real challenge we now have with the Northern Ireland Protocol with some pragmatism, creativity and flexibility," Nandy said.

Also in attendance was João Vale de Almeida, the EU's ambassador to the UK, who said he hoped "conditions will be created very soon" for the two sides to reach an agreement on how the post-Brexit treaty for Northern Ireland is implemented.

He rejected suggestions that the EU was taking a rigid approach to the province, however.

“Our approach has not been rules, rules, rules," he said.

"It has been rules minus, rules minus in the sense that we are adapting to the particular situation in Northern Ireland and we have shown enormous flexibility."

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