Lord Frost has told Brussels to stop threatening a sausage trade war with the UK and focus on solving the problems faced by families and small businesses in Northern Ireland, ahead of a showdown summit on Wednesday.
On the eve of the first UK-EU Partnership Council in London, the Brexit minister warned that “further threats of legal action” would do nothing to solve the “damaging impact” that the Northern Ireland Protocol was having on the ground.
“Trade retaliation from the EU won’t make life any easier for the shopper in Strabane who can’t buy their favourite product,” he continued. “Nor will it benefit the small business in Ballymena struggling to source produce from their supplier in Birmingham.”
His comments were echoed by Boris Johnson, who in a call with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, stressed the UK needed to see “quick progress” to “minimise the impact” of the protocol “on the lives of people in Northern Ireland”.
However, signalling that the row could now spill over into the G7 this weekend, Mrs von der Leyen said she had expressed her “deep concern” to Mr Johnson and intended to “discuss how to progress and ensure compliance” in the margins of the summit.
Lord Frost’s intervention will be seen as a direct riposte to Maros Sefcovic, his EU counterpart, who yesterday used an article in The Telegraph to threaten retaliation if the UK seeks to avoid a looming ban on the sale of British sausages and chilled meats in Northern Ireland, which is due to begin in July.
While ministers have branded the ban “bonkers” and are now considering unilaterally extending a grace period in the protocol if no solution can be found with the EU, Brussels has said it could hit back by seeking to impose tariffs and other restrictions on trade.
Warning that “time is short” to resolve the controversy, Lord Frost urged the EU to use the summit constructively, adding that it was only by “making substantial progress” that both sides could demonstrate the protocol, set up to prevent a hard Irish border, can be made to work.
However, in a move that threatens to reopen another schism between the two sides, Brussels will demand better access for French fishermen to UK waters in the wake of a row with Jersey over restrictions on new fishing licences.
EU officials warned they intended to be “firm” in pressing the case for Channel fishing boats, which blockaded the island’s main port in May in protest.
Meanwhile, the Environment Secretary has suggested that Joe Biden would back the UK in its dispute with the EU, adding that the US would never agree to similar restrictions being imposed within its internal market.
Ahead of the US president’s arrival in the UK on Thursday, for the G7 summit in Cornwall, George Eustice said he believed Mr Biden would take the view that the EU was being overly “bureaucratic”.
Mr Biden, who is a proud Irish American, is reportedly due to stress that the protocol must be upheld in bilateral talks with Boris Johnson.
However, asked about Mr Biden on Tuesday, Mr Eustice told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think there’d be an understanding and appreciation that if we truly believe in the Good Friday Agreement, as the UK Government does, and if we truly believe in peace in Northern Ireland, that means making the Northern Ireland protocol work properly.
“I suspect that any US administration would be amazed if you were to say, for instance, that a sausage from Texas couldn’t be sold to California, there would be an outright ban: they really wouldn’t understand how that could even be contemplated.”
His comments were echoed by the Prime Minister’s spokesman, who said: “Northern Ireland consumers should be able to enjoy products they have brought from Great Britain for years and years, for generations. We’re confident that the public would understand that and other countries would understand that.”
Urging Brussels to use the summit to find solutions for Northern Ireland, Lord Frost said: “Businesses in Great Britain are choosing not to sell their goods into Northern Ireland because of burdensome paperwork, medicine manufacturers are threatening to cut vital supplies, and chilled meats from British farmers destined for the Northern Ireland market are at risk of being banned entirely.
“When I meet Maros Sefcovic my message will be clear: time is short and practical solutions are needed now to make the Protocol work.
“What is needed is pragmatism and common sense solutions to resolve the issues as they are before us. This work is important. And it is ever more urgent.”