The U.K. remains as willing as ever to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol if the European Union refuses to meet its demands, despite what EU officials might suggest, a senior British minister said.
“We haven’t stepped back from the idea of triggering Article 16,” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said Thursday in an interview in London. “Our focus at the moment is around these ongoing negotiations to try and get a solution, but we are also crystal clear: That can’t go on forever.”
Lewis was speaking after the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, told EU ambassadors behind closed doors on Wednesday that it thought the U.K.’s threat of ditching parts of the Brexit agreement relating to trade with Northern Ireland may be off the table for now.
According to a diplomatic note seen by Bloomberg, commission officials argued that the bloc’s forceful negotiating stance had prompted London to soften its position.
Under the 2019 Brexit agreement, goods shipped into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain are subject to customs checks if they are at risk of being later moved into the EU. Britain is demanding changes to that arrangement, saying that it has inhibited trade between different parts of the U.K.
The EU, for its part, has signaled it could suspend the entire trade agreement with the U.K. if the British make good on their threat to trigger Article 16.
EU Brexit chief Maros Sefcovic reported an improved tone in negotiations following a meeting with his British counterpart David Frost in London last week. The two will meet again on Friday in Brussels.
That shift in tone however has yet to translate into any meaningful change in British demands for a renegotiation of the protocol, which allowed the U.K. to leave the EU’s single market without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“The EU in the last week or so seems to have just eased a little bit in terms of wanting to find a solution on customs and various things and that’s got to be a good thing,” Lewis said. “We want to get a negotiated outcome because that gives more certainty and stability, and that’s good for Northern Ireland. But if we can’t, we will trigger Article 16 because that is how the protocol works.”
On Thursday, Frost did offer a more nuanced stance on one of the thorniest issues that the U.K. has raised—the role of the European Court of Justice in governing disputes in Northern Ireland. The U.K. has previously demanded the removal of the ECJ from Northern Ireland oversight, but Frost’s latest remark suggested a possible compromise.
“The EU defines the Court of Justice as the final arbiter of what EU law means. We don’t challenge that and we can’t do anything about that,” he said. “It is the settlement of disputes that is the difficulty here.”