British prime minister Boris Johnson has warned Brussels he will not hesitate to take unilateral measures to protect the position of Northern Ireland in the increasingly bitter row over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Mr Johnson met key players from the EU side at the G7 summit in Cornwall on Saturday, as wrangling over the Northern Ireland protocol threatened to overshadow his hosting of the international gathering.
While Downing Street characterised the discussions as “constructive”, Mr Johnson complained that some of the leaders failed to understand the UK is a single country.
“I just need to get that into their heads,” he said.
He warned that unless there was a solution he would invoke Article 16 of the protocol which allows either side to take unilateral action if its implementation were to lead to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
His comments followed a series of talks with French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council leader Charles Michel.
The UK prime minister told Sky News: “I think we can sort it out but . . . it is up to our EU friends and partners to understand that we will do whatever it takes.
“I think if the protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16, as I have said before.
“Don’t forget, the EU themselves invoked Article 16 in January to disapply the protocol so they can stop removal of vaccines from the EU to the UK.
“I’ve talked to some of our friends here today, who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country, a single territory. I just need to get that into their heads.”
Earlier on Saturday Ms von der Leyen told Mr Johnson that he must implement the Brexit deal that he signed to ensure peace in Northern Ireland, and that the 27-member bloc was completely unified on that position.
Ms von der Leyen said: “The Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland are paramount. Both sides must implement what we agreed on.”
However, Mr Johnson urged his European counterparts to show compromise over Northern Ireland trade so a solution can be found quickly, according to his spokesman.
Though Brexit was not part of the formal agenda for the Group of Seven summit, Mr Johnson’s spokesman confirmed the stand-off over the Northern Ireland protocol had also been raised in meetings with Mr Macron and Ms Merkel, suggesting a concerted effort by the EU to press the prime minister to compromise.
Mr Johnson underscored to Ms Merkel the “need to maintain both the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the UK,” the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the Elysee Palace said Mr Macron issued a robust warning to Mr Johnson, telling him the British government must “honour their word” over the Brexit deal, as he called for a “reset” in relations between their two countries.
It said the French president had stressed the common values between the two countries and the prospects for working more closely together.
But it added that Mr Macron had “strongly emphasised that this re-engagement required the British to honour their word to the Europeans and the framework defined by the Brexit agreements”.
The UK prime minister’s spokesman disputed the Elysee’s account of the meeting, however, saying: “That is not how I would characterise their meeting. Both the prime minister and president Macron agreed on the need to deepen the bilateral relationship between the UK and France. ”
He claimed Mr Macron had not made that closer relationship dependent on resolving the impasse over the protocol but did concede the issue had come up in the meeting.
The US has expressed grave concern that the dispute between London and Brussels over the implementation of the 2020 Brexit divorce treaty could undermine the Belfast Agreement that ended three decades of violence in the North in 1998. US president Joe Biden has made clear that any steps that imperilled the agreement would not be welcomed by Washington.
Since the UK exited the EU on January 1st, Mr Johnson has unilaterally delayed the implementation of some provisions of the Northern Ireland protocol and his top negotiator has said it is unsustainable.
Both sides insist it is the other’s turn to make compromises in the bitter row, with the UK claiming it has made more than 10 proposals and received no reply from the EU.
The UK has threatened to unilaterally extend the grace period for implementing some checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, due to start taking place from June 30th.
That could result in the EU imposing an effective ban on chilled meat products such as sausages being sent from Britain into Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland abides by EU agrifood rules as part of the protocol struck to prevent a hard border arising between the North and the Republic. But the EU side says the UK has not met its promises to implement checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.
London says the protocol is unsustainable in its current form because of the disruption it has caused to supplies of everyday goods from the UK to Northern Ireland.
The unionist community in Northern Ireland say they are now split off from the rest of the UK.– Reuters, Guardian, PA