The Government’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost has called on Brussels to “shake off any remaining ill will” towards the UK for leaving the bloc as arrangements governing trade to Northern Ireland continue to prove contentious.
The European Commission has said it will launch legal action against Whitehall after the UK announced it was extending a series of “grace periods” designed to ease trade between Northern Ireland – which remains in the EU single market for goods – and Great Britain while permanent arrangements are decided.
Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost said on Wednesday that London’s move should allow time for constructive discussions with counterparts in Brussels.
But the intervention provoked a furious response in Brussels, with the EU accusing the UK of going back on its treaty obligations in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement intended to ensure there is no return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Lord Frost said the move was lawful and designed to protect the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland.
“With Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, our agenda is one of an outward-looking country, confident we can work with others towards common goals,” he said
“That is our hope for our ties with our European friends and allies too. I hope they will shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving, and instead build a friendly relationship, between sovereign equals.”
The Northern Ireland protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement was designed by the EU and UK to avoid a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland.
It means keeping Northern Ireland aligned to various EU rules, requiring checks on goods arriving into the region from Great Britain.
Meanwhile, the chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007 said Lord Frost had chosen to “poke a stick in the eye” of the bloc by taking unilateral action on the grace periods.
Jonathan Powell, who was also Tony Blair’s chief of staff, said the move was a reprise of Lord Frost’s “disastrous tactical manoeuvre during the negotiations last year of breaking international law by unilaterally abrogating the protocol in the Internal Market Bill, which later had to be humiliatingly withdrawn”.
Writing in The Sunday Times, he said: “The only safe option is to find a way to make the protocol work better, which means trying to rebuild trust with the Irish and with the commission rather than attacking them.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster, meanwhile, has criticised Brussels for taking a “very belligerent approach” to the difficulties caused by the protocol post-Brexit.
Mrs Foster also said “something had to give” and the UK had to take action and extend a grace period.
Meanwhile, the White House has again stressed the support of new US President Joe Biden for the Good Friday Agreement, which the protocol is intended to protect.
Prior to last year’s election, Mr Biden – who is famously proud of his Irish roots – warned the agreement must not become a casualty of Brexit.