There is speculation in Brussels and London that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could trigger Article 16 and suspend aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Fine Gael’s European Affairs spokesperson Neale Richmond TD said he thought the British Government might do so for domestic political reasons:
“The European Commission presented a really comprehensive, generous package of measures, just a fortnight ago to alleviate the impacts, not just of the protocol, but of Brexit,” Deputy Richmond told Newstalk.
“The British Government has presented nothing. They have merely said this is not enough and continued to play the red herring of the European Court of Justice.
“But perhaps, [for] domestic British politics, triggering Article 16 and picking a row with the EU is a handy distraction tool.”
Article 16 allows either the EU or the British Government to suspend elements of the protocol if there are “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.
The clause was agreed by both sides and activated by the EU in January this year when the Commission banned the export of COVID vaccines to Northern Ireland. The bloc u-turned and President Ursula von der Leyen said “that mistakes were made”.
Britain’s negotiator, Lord Frost, said that as trade between Britain and Northern Ireland has been disrupted, the conditions to trigger Article 16 have been met.
London also wants to end the oversight of the European Court of Justice and instead wants the protocol to be "managed collectively and ultimately through international arbitration."
The European Commission has proposed changes that it says will "provide significant changes for operators on the ground". Such changes would include an "Express Lane" for British goods destined only for Northern Ireland, allowing inspectors to reduce the number of custom checks carried out.
The British view
Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major has said invoking Article 16 would be "colossally stupid" and “absurd”.
Sir John told the BBC: "It would add to destabilisation in Northern Ireland, it would seriously damage relationships across the whole of Ireland, north and south and the UK. It would erode relationships between Europe and the UK, it would damage relationships between Washington and London”.
However, unionist parties in Northern Ireland disagree. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson tweeted on Friday that triggering Article 16 would be an, “entirely valid in response to diversion of trade & political, economic & societal problems created by a Protocol that has far reaching implications for [the] relationship between Great Britain & Northern Ireland.”
A poll carried out last month suggested that the majority of voters in Northern Ireland support the protocol; 52% said they thought it “a good thing” on balance, while 53% opposed the British Government triggering Article 16.
Main image: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks back to Downing Street. Picture by: Ray Tang/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images