The EU will have “no option” but to retaliate if the UK goes ahead with threats to suspend parts of the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland in the coming days, Ireland’s deputy prime minister has warned.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said Ireland had begun to “dust down” contingency preparations in case London acts unilaterally to suspend some parts of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, fuelling concerns that disagreements over Brexit may spark an EU-UK trade war.
Relations between London and Brussels have soured rapidly as the UK seeks to rewrite the post-Brexit trade deal for Northern Ireland which left the region in the EU’s customs union and single market in order to prevent the return of a north-south trade border in Ireland
That arrangement, which the UK now says is “not sustainable”, was agreed to preserve the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian conflict. All of the region’s mainly Protestant Unionist parties have rejected the protocol, saying the arrangements undermine their place within the UK.
London says concessions made last month by Brussels to reduce the impact of checks on goods travelling between the Great Britain and Northern Ireland across a new customs border in the Irish Sea do not go far enough.
Varadkar told RTÉ radio on Tuesday that if Britain triggered Article 16 clause of the protocol to unilaterally suspend key parts of the deal, the European Commission could be forced to scrap the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
However, that hardline stance has split EU member states. Countries like France and Ireland are pushing for tougher measures, but EU officials and diplomats have played down talk of pre-emptive measures against the UK. “We are not there yet,” said one official.
Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic will brief EU ambassadors and MEPs on Wednesday ahead of a meeting with Lord David Frost, the UK Brexit minister, on Friday.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see the European Union suspending the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with Britain, but if Britain were to act in such a way that it was resigning from the protocol, resigning from the withdrawal agreement, I think the European Union would have no option other than to . . . respond,” Varadkar said.
Legal experts said a UK decision to suspend parts of the deal on Northern Ireland would undermine the basis on which the EU had agreed the zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal.
“If the UK is pulling the plug on substantive provisions of that withdrawal agreement, the EU could argue it gives them grounds to terminate [the TCA],” said Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at Cambridge university.
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Frost has said since July that the threshold has already been reached to justify using Article 16 because of the economic and political disruption the protocol has caused.
One diplomat described a meeting last week between Frost and Sefcovic in Brussels last week as “cold” and “their worst ever . . . They’re just talking past each other”.
Senior EU diplomats said there was a growing consensus among member states that it could not be “business as usual” if the UK resorted to Article 16. “No short term measures have been decided but there will be talks about potentially suspending the TCA,” said one EU diplomat.