UK Brexit minister David Frost played down on Wednesday (10 November) the prospects of London suspending the Northern Ireland protocol in the coming days, saying that it was “not inevitable” that the UK will trigger Article 16 of its Brexit deal with the EU.

“We are certainly not there yet,” Frost told the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK parliament, on Wednesday.

Ministers in Dublin and Belfast had begun to make contingency plans for a possible trade dispute between the EU and UK should London invoke Article 16 and suspend the protocol which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and imposes customs checks on goods travelling from Britain to the island of Ireland in order to avoid a hard border.

Article 16 of the Brexit deal allows either party, the UK or the EU, to take unilateral “safeguard” measures if they deem the deal is leading to serious practical problems or disrupting trade.

The rhetoric has been further inflamed by Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians, including Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the devolved assembly, who said this week the conditions for suspending the protocol had already been met.

However, Frost played down the row, dismissing recent suggestions that the UK and the EU have been growing further apart in the talks on the Northern Ireland protocol.

“We have inched a little bit closer,” he said, while also remarking that the gap between the two sides is still “extremely wide”.

Frost said the Commission’s latest offer to ease the burden of the protocol on businesses by providing more flexible rules on food, dairy products, plant and animal health, known as sanitary and phytosanitary issues, would offer less than the 80% reduction in customs checks that the EU executive has claimed.

Similarly, he told lawmakers that the EU’s offer to create an ‘Express Lane’ for the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland would lead to a reduction in paperwork that is much less than the 50% cut claimed by the Commission.

He also warned that “if the EU were to choose to react in a disproportionate way and decide to aggravate the problems in Northern Ireland rather than reduce them, that is, of course, a matter for them”.

Elsewhere, Frost told lawmakers that ministers were making contingency plans for the UK to set up its own ‘Discovery Fund’ to finance research and innovation projects, should the European Commission continue to stall on granting the UK’s associate member status of the Horizon Europe research fund agreed as part of the post Brexit deal last December.

That would involve reallocating the £2.1 billion which the UK Treasury had earmarked for its annual contribution to the €95.5 billion Horizon programme, and UK ministers have conceded that a domestic research programme would not compensate for the lost access to the EU fund

“It is in neither ours, nor the EU’s interest to get to this point and much the best way forward is for the EU instead to finalise our participation [in Horizon Europe] as a matter of urgency,” remarked Frost.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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