Talks between the EU and the UK over Northern Ireland appear on the brink of collapse as London indicated it was still considering unilateral action to keep unhindered supplies flowing from Great Britain into the region.
The European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, said patience was “wearing very very thin” and described the relationship with the UK as “at a crossroads”.
Amid fears that the escalating crisis over Northern Ireland would develop into a trade war, David Frost, the Brexit minister, said there had been “no breakthroughs” over the Brexit checks but no “breakdowns” after a two-hour meeting with Šefčovič in London
They agreed to continue to try to find a solution before 30 June when a ban on chilled meats including sausages and mincemeat is due to come into force.
Late on Wednesday, Boris Johnson insisted that there was no crisis. “I’m very very optimistic about this. I think that’s easily doable,” he said, referring to an issue that was at the heard of the fraught Irish border negotiations two years ago: preventing a border on the island of Ireland while protecting trade within the UK post-Brexit.
But behind the scenes, UK sources were more trenchant. “All the options remain on the table,” said a senior source close to the talks when asked about the possibility of unilateral action to extend a grace period for checks on chilled meats that ends on 30 June.
On the prospect of retaliation and a trade war, the source said: “We feel like we’ve heard this before. Nobody wants to get into a trade war or anything close to it, obviously.
“Unfortunately we have got used to living in an atmosphere where there are threats made to us, and not just in this context. The EU quite often seems to resort to threats at a relatively early stage in the process.”
At a long press conference in London, Šefčovič repeatedly expressed frustration with the UK’s broken promises to implement the protocol in Northern Ireland.
“If the UK were to take further unilateral action in the coming weeks, we will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely.”
Asked what form that might take, he said it could include legal action, arbitration or other retaliatory measures, including targeted tariffs, which has prompted talk of a UK-EU “sausage war” on the Great British side of the Channel.
But he said: “We don’t want this to happen … It’s not too late. Let’s correct the path.”
He said the UK had had ample opportunities up to January to express concern that the agreed Brexit checks would not work, but insisted they would be implemented.
Šefčovič said he had asked Michael Gove at his first meeting in March last year whether the UK was ready for the checks, as the EU had never outsourced border controls to a third country before.
He was reassured then and again in December that all would proceed as negotiated, he said.
“If you are sending sausage, cheese or meat products to Northern Ireland the very easy solution is to just put the sticker on it: ‘for Northern Ireland only’, and … we agreed on a simplified export health certificate. Do you think that one of these things has happened? No, none, nothing was done,” he said.
He described the meeting with Lord Frost as “very difficult”, revealing the relationship got off to a rocky start when the UK minister announced a unilateral decision to pull the plug on some of the protocol.
It was just “several hours before our first phone call” and “was not the best way how to start a new relationship,” said Šefčovič.
There are now fears that the UK, which first threatened to take matters into its own hands with the internal market bill, may take unilateral action a third time on 30 June.
“The problem we’ve got is the protocol is being implemented in a way which is causing disruption in Northern Ireland and we had some pretty frank and honest discussions about that situation today,” Frost said.
Šefčovič said the UK may not have understood what it was getting into. “It might be that our British partners couldn’t fully estimate the total consequences of the Brexit they have chosen; what it would mean to leave the single market, the customs union, how complex it would be for businesses,” he said.
In a statement, the UK side said no substantive progress had been made on the prospect of a veterinary agreement, which the EU believes could mean 80% of the agrifood checks disappear and could work as a temporary measure.
Ministers have objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would mean London observing EU laws again, just six months after Boris Johnson went ahead with a hard Brexit, severing the country’s links to the bloc’s trade rules.
Other areas where substantive progress was not made, according to the UK, included freedom of movement for pets without passports, trusted trader status for agrifood suppliers, and tariffs on steel and parcels.
Progress was made on guide dogs entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain and the EU’s repeated request for access to UK customs IT systems. The EU had promised further proposals on the supply of medicines and livestock movements, Downing Street said.