Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister has admitted talks with the EU to avert a ban on British sausages being sold in Northern Ireland are “not having much progress” – although he is holding out hope of agreeing an extension to an end-of-month deadline.
Lord Frost told MPs that the UK has urged the European Union to agree to extend a current “grace period” on the export of chilled meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland beyond 30 June.
Without such an extension – or another solution being found – sausages and other chilled meats would be banned from entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain from next month under post-Brexit arrangements.
The issue has prompted a row between the EU and UK, which spilled into the prime minister’s talks with EU leaders at last week’s G7 summit in Cornwall.
Lord Frost, who is responsible for the implementation of post-Brexit arrangements on avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland – known as the Northern Ireland Protocol – suggested the EU was unwilling to engage with UK proposals.
He told the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday that “there are discussions going on the whole time” with Brussels.
“It’s just that we are not making much progress despite all the ideas that we have put in,” Lord Frost said.
The peer reiterated the government’s stance that “all options” remained under consideration amid the continuing row, which could include the UK unilaterally deciding to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol under Article 16.
“We obviously face a difficulty on the chilled meats issue,” he said.
“We have asked and suggested to the EU that the right way forward would be to agree to extend the grace period, at least for a bit, to provide a bit of a breathing space for the current discussions to continue and try and find solutions.
“I still hold out some hope they might agree to that because it seems a very narrow point to take such a purist view about.
“We’re not having much progress but there is a little bit of time left before that.
“If we can’t agree it, we’ll obviously have to consider all our options.”
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Under the protocol, Northern Ireland is effectively within the EU’s internal market and customs rules, which prevent third countries from trading chilled meats into the bloc’s market.
But Lord Frost repeated his accusation that the EU was taking a “purist” approach to the issue and said there was “no risk” of sausages from Great Britain ending up in the EU’s single market.
“It does seem to us, in a way, a very purist point for the EU to insist upon given that there is – as far as we’re aware – no risk of Great British sausages ending up in the single market.
“We’re not aware it’s happened and I’d like to think someone would have told us if it had – I think probably they would have – but as far as we’re aware it hasn’t.
“It would seem to me a pity to make this negotiation, which is already pretty complex and tense, more so by being very purist about that.”
Last week’s G7 summit featured a row between the UK and EU over suggestions French President Emmanuel Macron spoke about Northern Ireland as if it were a different country to the UK.
And Lord Frost – while refusing to go into detail about last week’s talks between Mr Macron and Mr Johnson – said the UK government had “sensed this sort of slight misunderstanding about the status about Northern Ireland has been around for some time – possibly quite a long time”.
“It’s obviously rather concerning if people see things in that way,” he added.
“It doesn’t seem to us to be consistent with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which are very clear on that, or Article 1.1. of the protocol.”
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