EU capitals have hit back at comments from UK Brexit minister Lord David Frost that suggested the bloc needed to compromise more over Northern Ireland, in a sign of growing tension ahead of high-level EU-UK meetings this week.
Frost, writing in the Financial Times on Sunday, called for the EU to show “common sense” and soften checks at the trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain while criticising what he said was the bloc’s “legal purism”.
“The EU needs a new playbook for dealing with neighbours,” Frost wrote, adding that he hoped to “see progress” at meetings taking place in London on Wednesday with EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic.
But the comments have been poorly received in the EU, which argues that it has been working intensively to fix difficulties that businesses and people in Northern Ireland are experiencing because of the post-Brexit customs and veterinary border between the region and Great Britain.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said on Twitter that Frost “continues to lay blame for difficulty with protocol at EU inflexibility. This is simply not the case.”
Noting that the EU side had “consistently proposed new solutions”, Coveney said: “Is this about media messaging in UK or really solving problems together?”
France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune also took issue with Frost’s comments, saying that the post-Brexit system of trading arrangements for Northern Ireland — which was created to avoid a hard border on the island itself — “cannot be called into question”.
The Northern Ireland protocol set out in the UK’s Brexit treaty with the EU “is not the problem. It is the solution to a problem that we have not created,” Beaune said.
The cross-Channel sparring underlines the difficult talks that lie ahead over the protocol. UK prime minister Boris Johnson crafted the system with the EU during negotiations in 2019, but the real-world difficulties caused by the arrangements have become a political running sore in the region.
Britain has laid the blame on legal inflexibility by the EU, which has argued that checks are important to protect its own internal market from fraud and smuggling.
Brussels, in turn, has put the spotlight on the UK’s refusal to sign a Switzerland-style veterinary agreement with the EU that would remove the need for many checks. EU officials have also complained about Britain’s slow progress in meeting its obligations, including providing real-time access to customs data.
Day-to-day problems with the protocol have ranged from legal snags with the delivery of generic medicines to administrative barriers to travel with guide dogs, as well as with more general issues around the paperwork needed to transport food and live animals.
The EU side has insisted in recent days that it is doing all it can, including showing “creativity” around the protocol, in a bid to find solutions to problems on the ground.
Sefcovic has highlighted efforts to ease travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for guide dogs, and to reduce burdensome tagging arrangements for live animals.
EU officials also point to Brussels’ efforts to find a solution on medicines, where the problem stems from EU rules concerning the regulatory authorisations necessary for pharmaceutical companies to sell such products on the single market, including in Northern Ireland.
But Brussels has grown increasingly frustrated at what it sees as Britain’s slowness in addressing EU concerns.
“Patience has gone,” said one EU official on Friday. “We have been working hard behind the scenes to find creative solutions but we need the UK side to stick to their side of the bargain — we need trust. Trust is the pre-requisite for us to be able to put forward the new solutions.”
EU diplomats and the European Commission are set to discuss preparations for this week’s talks with Frost at a meeting of the bloc’s UK working party this afternoon.