UK wants to find a Northern Ireland trade solution, Times says

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain wants to de-escalate tensions with the European Union and find a solution to a post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade dispute that has threatened broader relations between the two sides, the Times newspaper reported on Friday.

Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost will meet with the European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic in London on Friday to discuss changes to trade rules, after Britain threatened to trigger emergency unilateral provisions in the Brexit deal.

That threat, known as triggering Article 16, has prompted Ireland to warn that the whole 2020 free trade deal could be set aside in response, while other EU governments have agreed to take a “robust” line with London if ties break down.

The Times said on Friday however that Frost would signal to Sefcovic that London was ready to renew efforts to get a deal and enter intensive talks over the next few weeks.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been hit by a growing sleaze scandal in his party in recent weeks and political opponents have questioned why London would pursue a trade dispute with its neighbours at a time of rising inflation and supply chain friction.

“Triggering Article 16 does not solve the problems we face,” the Times quoted a British source as saying. “Even if we were to do it, eventually we’d still have to get back round the table.”

Since leaving the EU last year Britain has delayed the introduction of some border checks that were designed to avoid the need for a hard frontier between the British province and EU-member Ireland. London says the checks are disproportionate and threaten Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal.

The EU says tighter controls are necessary to protect its single market of 450 million people.

Frost said earlier this week that the two sides had made progress in recent talks but that the gap remained extremely wide. He added that he was not ready to give up on talks aimed at finding a solution but triggering Article 16 may be the only solution.

Ireland’s minister for European affairs, Thomas Byrne, told BBC Radio he was pleased that talks were taking place and that he hoped both sides could remain supportive because making threats would not succeed.

“A tough approach or a ‘tough guy’ approach when it comes to Northern Ireland can only be counterproductive and will lead to disaster,” he said, after masked, armed men hijacked and set fire to buses in recent days in the province.

The Times said that while Britain had reservations about the Commission’s proposals to reduce checks on goods crossing between Britain and Northern Ireland, they could form the basis of an agreement, if changes were made.

(Reporting by Jahnavi Nidumolu in Bengaluru; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Michael Holden)

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