UK to EU: Our position on Northern Ireland is unchanged

LONDON — The U.K. is keeping its threat to suspend parts of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol despite this week’s change of Brexit ministers.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Tuesday held her first phone call with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič since taking over from David Frost, who quit the government over the weekend with a swipe at Boris Johnson’s government.

In a statement after the call, Truss said the U.K. wants a “constructive relationship” with the EU — “underpinned by trade” and common values such as democracy and freedom.

But she warned Brussels not to expect significant changes in the British position over Northern Ireland trade rules as a result of her replacing Frost. And she stressed that the U.K. remains “prepared to trigger Article 16” — a safeguard mechanism in the Northern Ireland protocol that allows either side to suspend parts of its provisions temporarily.

“We need goods to flow freely between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, end the role of the [Court of Justice of the European Union] ECJ as the final arbiter of disputes between us, and resolve other issues,” Truss said. “We must pick up the pace on talks in the new year.”

Her first words as the U.K.’s new Brexit lead will be watched closely on the Continent after six months of largely unfruitful talks over the protocol, which was set up to avoid a politically sensitive hard border on the island of Ireland after Britain’s EU departure.

A U.K. government official said the call was “pretty cordial” and that Truss agrees with Frost on “all the fundamental principles” of the negotiation. The two sides are still to choose a date for resuming talks in January.

Šefčovič said after the call that he wants “to continue working towards a conclusive understanding with the U.K. on practical solutions” for people in Northern Ireland, with a view to ensuring “stability and predictability” in the region.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who also was due to speak to Truss, called on her to redouble Frost’s threats to invoke Article 16.

Donaldson — who confirmed earlier Tuesday that he has tested positive for COVID-19 after flying back to Northern Ireland from London — said he would speak to Truss by videolink despite feeling “croaky” with a sore throat.

Speaking ahead of their discussion, Donaldson asserted that if the British government “had moved unilaterally, the matter would already be resolved.” He claimed that Northern Ireland’s supply chain of “lifesaving medicines” from Britain remained in peril, despite the EU’s own unilateral action last week to ensure that medicine stocks could keep flowing uninterrupted.  

“The continued refusal by Brussels to recognize the damage of the protocol requires action from the government,” Donaldson said. “It now falls to the foreign secretary to swiftly take the necessary steps to restore the territorial integrity of this country.”

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