On Friday, the United Kingdom and the European Union edged closer to a diplomatic cliff edge but remained miles apart in a post-Brexit squabble that threatens to turn into a cross-Channel trade war.
Negotiations to resolve differences over Northern Ireland trade have dragged on for nearly a month, with EU officials growing increasingly concerned that Britain intends to suspend portions of its legally binding divorce agreement.
This would prompt a reaction from the EU, potentially escalating into a trade war between the bloc’s 27 members and its increasingly estranged former member.
Top Brexit officials from both sides — David Frost for the UK and Maros Sefcovic for the EU — left the meeting in London on Friday with soothing words but no real progress. They agreed to keep talking.
“We need to make serious headway in the course of next week,” Sefcovic told reporters. The British government said Frost wanted “to bring new energy and impetus to discussions.”
Frost had previously threatened to trigger an emergency break clause in the deal, which allows either side to stop the agreement in extreme circumstances. Sefcovic said he welcomed a “change in tone” from Frost. The EU would be forced to take legal action, as well as possibly devastating economic measures.
Frost has softened his tone in recent days, saying that he will not “give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done.”
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and has a border with Ireland, which is a member of the European Union. It will remain in the EU’s tariff-free single market for goods under the Brexit deal, ensuring an open border on the island of Ireland, which is a crucial pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Even though they are part of the same country, this has resulted in the creation of a new customs border in the Irish Sea for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
This has increased red tape for businesses and enraged British Unionists in Northern Ireland, who claim the checks undermine Northern Ireland’s status in the United Kingdom and destabilize the delicate political balance that underpins peace.
In recent weeks, two buses have been kidnapped and set alight in Protestant Loyalist communities, in violence tied to trade agreement tensions.