Britain has asked the EU to extend a grace period for some post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, Brexit minister David Frost said Wednesday, as a sausage-centred dispute between London and Brussels sizzles on.
Frost confirmed the UK has asked the bloc to delay an end-of-month deadline to implement a new trading regime around chilled meats in the British province, which could see Northern Irish imports of products like sausages banned.
“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,” Frost told a British parliamentary scrutiny committee.
He said an extension would “provide a bit of a breathing space for the current discussions to continue and try and find solutions.”
But Frost added “we’re not having much progress”, and warned “if we can’t agree it we’ll obviously have to consider all our options.”
Britain and the European Union have agreed that a special “protocol” will govern trade with Northern Ireland in the post-Brexit landscape as part of their divorce deal.
Since the start of 2021, it has remained effectively inside the EU customs union and single market for goods.
The scheme prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a former flashpoint in “The Troubles” sectarian conflict which largely ended in 1998.
However, the protocol is deeply unpopular within the pro-UK unionist community, who argue it creates a de-facto border with mainland Britain.
While various grace periods have been agreed, London is threatening to act unilaterally to extend the next one coming into force next month.
Such a move would be seen by Brussels as unravelling the post-Brexit accords negotiated in painstaking detail since the 2016 referendum.
The so-called “sausage war” dominated the G7 summit in England last weekend.
British prime minister Boris Johnson and EU leaders duelled over the subject as it spiralled into a faceoff about UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
Tensions are high in the territory — home to 1.9 million — which is still markedly divided between pro-Ireland nationalists and pro-UK unionists.
In April unionist anger over the protocol fuelled more than a week of rioting which saw 88 police injured.
“The difficulty that we’ve had since the start of the year … is that there has been a very visible weakening of consent in one community in Northern Ireland for the arrangements in the protocol,” said Frost.
“That’s obviously produced instability and uncertainty.”
There are fears that unrest will reignite in July — a traditional time of disruption in Northern Ireland — if discontent over the protocol is not settled.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said the protocol “is a technical trading arrangement to manage the disruption of Brexit”.
Expressing frustration on Twitter he said “it’s not about constitutional matters.”