Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves is pushing for ministers to cave to EU demands on a compromise over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Lord Frost is seeking to renegotiate the Brexit mechanism, warning London and Brussels “cannot go on as we are” with the current deal.
Unionists and businesses have argued bureaucratic paperwork and red tape introduced as part of the Protocol is having a detrimental impact on trade.
Under the terms of the 2019 withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland is effectively still in the EU single market.
It means customs checks must take place on goods being traded within the UK, crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Brussels has already rejected the UK’s proposals to alter the Protocol to make it more sustainable in the long run.
Ms Reeves admitted Labour also believes the Protocol requires reform and wants Lord Frost to bow to the EU’s suggestions.
“We thought the deal would be built on, but gaps have not been filled in,” Ms Reeves said as she criticised Boris Johnson’s “thin” Brexit deal.
Her assessment of the UK-EU relationship came despite the party voting for the Government’s trade deal with the bloc in December.
The Labour frontbencher told the FT “you need a veterinary deal” with the EU in order to reduce the paperwork on goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Brussels has told the UK to consider a Swiss-style veterinary agreement to bring an end to the red tape causing friction in the transport of goods across the Irish Sea.
The European Commission said a way to avoid the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks for agri-food products, ranging from live animals to fresh meat and plant products, could be along the lines of an agreement the EU has with Switzerland.
Outlining his proposals last week, Lord Frost said the EU should look at the UK’s suggestions with “fresh eyes”.
He told Brussels “to work with us to seize this opportunity and to put our relations on to a better footing”.
The Government’s 28 page command paper outlining the UK’s proposals included asking Brussels to show greater flexibility in the implementation of customs checks, and also renegotiate the governance of overseeing the Protocol.
The UK is seeking to limit full customs and SPS processes should only be applied to goods “genuinely destined” for the EU.
Lord Frost threatened to use Article 16, the legal means to suspend the Protocol, if Brussels failed to engage.
He said: “It is clear that the circumstances exist to justify the use of Article 16.
“Nevertheless, we have concluded that it is not the right moment to do so.
“Instead, we see an opportunity to proceed differently—to find a new path; to seek to agree with the EU, through negotiations, a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all.”