Britain and the European Union failed on Wednesday to agree any solutions to ease post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland and exchanged threats in a standoff that could cloud a weekend international summit.
Since Britain completed a tortuous exit from the EU late last year, its relations with Brussels have soured further, with both sides accusing each other of bad faith over a part of their trade deal that covers goods movements to the North.
The row has been dubbed the “sausage war” by British media because it affects the movement of chilled meats from Britain to Northern Ireland.
On Wednesday, it stepped up a gear, with Britain saying it could again unilaterally extend a grace period for introducing checks on some goods, and the EU saying it could advance its legal action, a step that could end in tariffs and quotas.
British prime minister Boris Johnson wants a summit of the world's seven largest advanced economies this weekend at a seaside village in southwestern England to showcase what he calls “global Britain”.
But he could receive a warning from US president Joe Biden, who, according to the Times newspaper, will tell London to respect a deal with the EU that was designed to protect the 23-year-old peace settlement in Northern Ireland.
No breakthroughs or breakdowns
In the latest round of talks, British Brexit minister David Frost, who is also expected to attend the summit, met European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in London to try to resolve the differences over the Northern Ireland protocol.
“We had some pretty frank and honest discussions ... There weren't any breakthroughs. There aren't any breakdowns either, and we are going to carry on talking,” Frost told reporters.
“What we now need to do is very urgently find some solutions.”
A senior UK source close to the talks said all options were on the table if there was no agreement, including London extending a grace period that waives checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland beyond the June 30th end-date that it has set.
Sefcovic responded in kind, saying the EU was considering advancing its legal challenge over Britain's actions in Northern Ireland, which could result in a court case by autumn or the eventual imposition of tariffs and quotas.
Preserving the delicate peace in the North without allowing the UK a back door into the EU single market through the 500 km Border was one of the trickiest issues of the Brexit divorce.
The result was the Northern Ireland protocol, which essentially kept the North in the EU's customs union and adhering to many of the rules of its single market – both of which Britain has left.
Brussels accuses London of failing to implement agreed checks on some goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, and has started legal action over London's unilateral extension of a “no-checks” grace period.
London says it has no choice because some of the checks hamper supplies to Northern Irish supermarkets. It has also pointed to rising tensions among unionists in the region, who say the protocol undermines the Belfast Agreement by loosening their ties to Britain.
“We've put forward some solutions to the EU,” housing minister Robert Jenrick told Sky News. “It can't be right that ... sausages can't travel from Bangor in Wales to Bangor in Northern Ireland.”