The UK will continue negotiations with the EU tomorrow to resolve differences over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Michael Gove has confirmed – as he warned that “nothing is off the table”.
The levelling up secretary told Sky News that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will be meeting European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on Thursday.
Mr Gove said Ms Truss will negotiate with Mr Sefcovic “in order to get the best possible outcome for the people of Northern Ireland”, but added that there is a need to be ready to say “look if I don’t get what I want in this negotiation I am prepared to walk away and used alternative methods”.
On Tuesday evening, the foreign secretary reiterated her frustration at the lack of progress in talks with Brussels.
Politics Hub: Truss issues warning to EU over Northern Ireland
It came as rumours mount that the UK is set to abandon the protocol – the post-Brexit arrangement which allows vehicles to deliver goods without having paperwork and checks when they cross the border from Northern Ireland into Ireland.
Ms Truss said the UK would not “shy away” from taking action over the Northern Ireland Protocol and said some proposals put forward by the European Union during months of discussions on the post-Brexit treaty would “take us backwards” and would “fail to properly address the real issues affecting Northern Ireland”.
After Prime Minister Boris Johnson indicated the situation was “now very serious” Ms Truss stressed the answer “cannot be more checks, paperwork and disruption”.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said that, under EU proposals suggested in October, trading arrangements could worsen and everyday items could disappear from shop shelves in Northern Ireland.
“Prices have risen, trade is being badly disrupted, and the people of Northern Ireland are subject to different laws and taxes than those over the Irish Sea, which has left them without an executive and poses a threat to peace and stability,” Ms Truss said.
“Our preference has always been for a negotiated solution but (we) will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found.”
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why does it matter?
Fixing the Northern Ireland Protocol “cannot be put off”
Her comments came after Mr Johnson spoke to Irish premier Micheal Martin about the post-Brexit arrangements on Tuesday.
In a Downing Street account of the call, the two leaders agreed on the vital importance of restoring the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which came second in last week’s Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, has warned the prime minister it would not nominate a deputy first minister to form an Executive until “decisive action is taken on the protocol”.
“Despite repeated efforts by the UK government over many months to fix the protocol, including those sections related to the movement of goods and governance, the European Commission had not taken the steps necessary to help address the economic and political disruption on the ground,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
“The prime minister reiterated that the UK government would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found.”
The government’s determination to reform the protocol was underlined in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday with a direct reference to the situation in the province.
“The continued success and integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom is of paramount importance to my government, including the internal economic bonds between all of its parts.
“My government will prioritise support for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and its institutions, including through legislation to address the legacy of the past [Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill].”
However, Tanaiste (deputy head of the government of Ireland) Leo Varadkar has warned the UK government against taking unilateral action on the protocol.
Mr Varadkar told RTE: “We can’t have any unilateral action from the UK. This is an international agreement, they have to honour their obligations. I was in the Wirral with Boris Johnson. I know what he agreed to.
“The people of Northern Ireland voted and they did not vote for a majority of MLAs who want the protocol to be scrapped. So the British government has to have regard to that. This is a democracy and an election just happened.”
An Irish government spokesman said the Taoiseach had urged Mr Johnson “to engage in intensified EU-UK discussions to address issues relating to the implementation of the protocol”.
In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said renegotiation of the protocol was “not an option”, and that unilateral action by the UK would make work on possible solutions “more difficult”.
Mr Sefcovic added: “The protocol, as a cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option. The European Union is united in this position.”