BRUSSELS (AP) — The United Kingdom on Friday rejected European Union proposals to streamline the trade of goods in Northern Ireland as insufficient, further aggravating a standoff between both sides and bringing the prospect of a post-Brexit trade war closer.
The U.K. government said after unsuccessful talks between its negotiator David Frost and his counterpart Maros Sefcovic that the EU offers to revamp the Northern Ireland deal, which the 27-nation bloc saw as far-reaching and unprecedented, “did not currently deal effectively with the fundamental difficulties.”
Beyond rejecting his proposals, Sefcovic retorted that “we have seen no move at all from the U.K. side. I find this disappointing.”
On top of the dispute over how to smooth the trade in goods in the U.K.’s Northern Ireland, where the complicated Brexit deal has left the region also in the EU’s single trading zone, both sides also made no progress in negotiations over symbolically important U.K. fishing licenses off France.
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Talks will now continue in London next week.
Frost also continued to wield the threat of suspending the Northern Ireland deal under the so-called Article 16 procedure. He said it was “very much on the table and has been since July.”
Article 16 is a clause in the EU-U.K. protocol on Northern Ireland allowing either side to suspend that part of the deal in exceptional circumstances.
Sefcovic said the impact of such a move would be grave. “Let there be no doubt that triggering Article 16 … would have serious consequences — serious for Northern Ireland. This is what leads to instability and unpredictability.”
Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., shares a land border with EU member Ireland. The Brexit agreement gives it a special trade status that ensures there is an open border on the island of Ireland. It is a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process since the 1998 Good Friday accord that ended years of violence.
Analysts say it would only be a small step from a suspension of Article 16 to a trade war.
The current deal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed has been controversial from the start since it means a new customs border in the Irish Sea for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., even though they are part of the same country.
That has brought red tape for businesses, and caused problems with some goods reaching Northern Ireland. EU rules on chilled meats led to a brief sausage shortage, and now Britain claims that Christmas crackers — festive noisemakers that are a holiday party staple — are being prevented from reaching Northern Ireland.
The EU said it has already offered major concessions in cutting red tape for trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, but London also wants to get rid of the legal oversight of the EU’s top court, something Brussels has set as a red line.
Issues over fish licenses have further complicated relations. Although fishing is a tiny industry economically for both Britain and France, the issue of boats’ access to waters that divide the two maritime powers has flared into a major irritant on top of the Northern Ireland issue.
France says Britain is breaking a commitment of the EU-U.K. trade agreement reached last year by not giving sufficient licenses to its Normandy fishermen seeking access to Crown dependencies Jersey and Guernsey. Britain says it still has insufficient proof some of the fishermen have historical rights to go there.
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