The UK government is on course for a diplomatic collision with Brussels as Brexit minister Lord Frost warned it would be a “historic misjudgement” for the bloc not to rewrite key parts of the agreement.
Accusing the EU of being “disrespectful” to Britain, Lord Frost demanded leaders effectively tear up the Northern Ireland protocol he negotiated alongside Boris Johnson just two years ago and replace it with a new treaty.
Delivering a speech in Lisbon, he risked inflaming tensions, claiming the bloc was attempting to “encourage UK political forces to reverse the referendum result or least keep us closely aligned with the EU”.
The minister suggested that the government was prepared to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol – which allows each side to override large parts of the agreement – if fundamental change could not be achieved.
“The EU and we have got into a low-equilibrium somewhat fractious relationship,” he said. “Fixing the very serious problem we have in the Northern Ireland protocol is a prerequisite for getting to a better place.”
He added: “For the EU now to say that the protocol – drawn up in extreme haste in a time of great uncertainty – can never be improved upon, when it is so self-evidently causing such significant problems, would be a historic misjudgement.”
The address came just 24 hours before the EU is set to unveil its own proposals for fixing the Northern Ireland situation, which Brussels said would be “far-reaching”.
Late on Tuesday, it was reported that the European Commission was willing to remove the majority of post-Brexit checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Brussels’ proposals will offer to lift 50 per cent of customs checks on goods and more than 50 per cent of checks on meat and plant products, according to The Guardian.
The existing protocol has created barriers to trade across the Irish Sea and led to a shortage of some goods supplied from Great Britain.
Louise Haigh, the shadow Northern Ireland minister, said Lord Frost’s speech “sets the stage for another destabilising stand-off, with the agreement businesses and communities need further away than ever. This approach is stoking tension while solving nothing.”
Lord Frost’s language will also do little to dissuade observers in EU capitals who think Britain is deliberately trying to torpedo the EU relationship, possibly for domestic political advantage. Among those is Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, who this weekend warned the UK might be looking to engineer “a further breakdown in relations”.
Former No 10 Europe adviser Raoul Ruparel said that while there was “nothing much new” in the Brexit minister’s speech, “the language on replacing the protocol was stronger than before and may well alarm some in the EU”.
“It also makes it a bit harder for the EU side to compromise or for a landing zone to be found,” he added.
Lord Gavin Barwell – former chief-of-staff to Theresa May – said that the government was now using the deal “hailed” by ministers just last year “to further undermine our relationship with some of our closest friends in an increasingly dangerous world”.
The UK’s Brexit minister told his audience: “Viewed from our perspective, we look at the EU and don’t always see an organisation that seems to want to get back to constructive working together.”
Citing a row over vaccines, threats to energy supplies, and an EU ban on shellfish, he said: “Overall, we are constantly faced with generalised accusations that we can’t be trusted and that we are not a reasonable international actor.”
Asked why Britain should be trusted as an international partner when it was tearing up an agreement painstakingly negotiated and implemented just 10 months ago, Lord Frost said with a smile: “We always sign treaties in good faith and intend to implement them.”
Lord Frost repeated concerns he had previously voiced about the effects of the protocol, which he said was “disruptive”, “causing serious turbulence” and “damaging large and small businesses” by restrictive trade.
And he said the alleged problems with the agreement he negotiated showed “we were right” – claiming that he had privately expressed concerns about the deal he publicly presented was a success.
Defending Brexit, he added: “To suggest that there is something wrong in people deciding things for themselves is somewhat disreputable, even disrespectful to the British people and our democracy.”
Following the speech, Liberal Democrat home affairs and Northern Ireland spokesperson Alistair Carmichael described the government’s approach as “a badly written farce”.
“The same minister who just months ago was trumpeting the government’s botched Brexit deal now says it’s intolerable and has to be changed,” he said.
“After all the upheaval British businesses have suffered and all the challenges they face now, they need certainty and support from the government, not more pointless posturing. The solution to disruption and shortages is working together with our friends and neighbours, not picking needless fights.
“Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have got to stop talking so casually about breaking international law. Every time they do this, it weakens the UK’s standing with our closest neighbours and around the world.”
Baroness Chapman, the shadow Brexit minister, said the government had failed to “approach the occasion with maturity and in the spirit of cooperation”.
“Lord Frost has effectively asked to rip up the agreement he negotiated – and the prime minister signed – just two years ago,” she said.
“For months, Labour has been calling on the government to drop the rhetoric and make the Northern Ireland protocol work for businesses and consumers on both sides of the Irish Sea.”
Dominique Moisi, a political scientist and senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne, said the speech by Lord Frost was “aggressive” and delivered in a way to divide Europe.
“A very eloquent, intellectually brilliant and rather aggressive text, and the fact that it was delivered in Lisbon in Portugal is a perfect symbol of what the British have tried to do during the Brexit negotiations and failed, ie to divide the Europeans,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
“He is reiterating the British position from Lisbon, the oldest ally, he has repeatedly said so, of Great Britain, and he goes on saying, ‘well, we have people in central Europe, eastern Europe, who think exactly like us on the basic issue of relationship with the United States. So it’s divide and rule again.”