Northern Ireland news

Maros Sefcovic says British government's threats to trigger Article 16 are 'enormously disruptive'

EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. Picture by Hollie Adams/PA Wire

THE British government's continuous threats to exit the north's post-Brexit trade rules are "enormously disruptive", Maros Sefcovic has said.

The European Commission vice president warned that the entire deal with the UK would collapse if the rules governing east-west trade were abandoned.

In an interview with German news outlet Spiegel published earlier this week, Mr Sefcovic said that a British decision to trigger Article 16 would have "serious consequences" for Northern Ireland's economy, while at the same time threatening peace.

He said it would constitute an "enormous setback" for EU-UK relations.

Article 16 allows either party to the deal to take unilateral "safeguard" measures, like the suspension of trade checks between Britain and the north, if they believe the protocol is leading to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties".

However, it does not allow for the suspension of the whole Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Mr Sefcovic said the British government's repeated threats to pull the trigger on the safeguard measure "are an enormously disruptive element in negotiations".

"You try to achieve something together, and — boom — there's the threat of Article 16 again. That goes to the heart of our relationship," he said.

He described the protocol as the "most complicated part of the Brexit negotiations" and the "foundation of the whole deal".

"Without the protocol, the system collapses. We must prevent that at all costs," he said.

The European Commission last month drafted a sanctions package that could be used to retaliate against Britain should Article 16 be triggered, including options such as punitive tariffs that could be imposed on British exports to the EU within one month or a suspension of the entire post-Brexit trade deal within nine months.

Asked whether he expected the atmosphere of talks between Brussels and London to improve following Lord Frost's resignation and the appointment of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as Britain's chief negotiator, Mr Sefcovic said he was "pragmatic" about the change.

"A successful joint solution with our British partners is more important to me than a great atmosphere," he said.

He said existing problems with the protocol "should have been solved by now".

"Overall, we are on the right track," he said, pointing to an opinion poll from the University of Liverpool at the end of October, which found a majority of voters in Northern Ireland viewed the protocol as positive.

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