Failure to implement checks on goods entering NI could spark trade war, Sefcovic warns after London talks
The EU has threatened to launch a trade war against Britain if it fails to implement checks on goods entering Northern Ireland under the terms of the Brexit "divorce" settlement.
After talks in London ended without a breakthrough, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said patience with the UK was wearing "very, very thin".
His warning came ahead of Joe Biden’s arrival in the UK on Wednesday night. He and his wife disembarked Air Force One at about 7.45pm, for what is his first overseas trip as US President.
He is expected to warn Boris Johnson and the European Union today not to "imperil" the Northern Ireland peace process, the US president's national security adviser said, as they struggle to resolve their trade row.
Ahead of the talks with Mr Johnson, Mr Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned that the president harbours "very deep" concerns on the issue provoked by Brexit.
Mr Sullivan said the president believes the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol is "critical" to ensuring that the Good Friday Agreement is protected, as Britain and the EU try to resolve the issue of checks in the Irish Sea.
The adviser told the BBC that both sides must continue with negotiations, adding: "But whatever way they find to proceed must, at its core, fundamentally protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and not imperil that. And that is the message that President Biden will send when he is in Cornwall."
Mr Sullivan declined to say whether a failure to alleviate the Northern Ireland concerns could jeopardise a transatlantic trade deal, but added that "our concern runs very deep on the Northern Ireland issue".
But the PM said he is "not worried" about the prospect of the summit being overshadowed by the row with the EU.
Asked about Mr Sullivan's warning, Mr Johnson told broadcasters in Cornwall that he was "very, very optimistic" about the situation and said a solution is "easily doable".
Earlier, Brexit Minister Lord Frost refused to rule out the prospect that the UK could unilaterally delay imposing checks on British-made sausages and other chilled meats due to come into force at the end of the month.
Following three-and-a-half hours of discussions at Admiralty House, Lord Frost accused Brussels of adopting an "extremely purist" approach to the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Johnson insisted he was "very optimistic" that the situation could be resolved and it was "easily doable", although he did not give any explanation of how.
"What we want to do is make sure that we can have a solution that guarantees the peace process, protects the peace process, but also guarantees the economic and territorial integrity of the whole United Kingdom," he said.
In a press conference after his meeting with Lord Frost, Mr Sefcovic insisted the EU has shown "enormous patience" in the face of "numerous and fundamental gaps" in the UK's compliance with the agreement.
He said that any further backtracking will be met with a resolute response.
"Of course, as you would understand, the fact that I mentioned that we are at a crossroads means that our patience really is wearing very, very thin, and therefore we have to assess all options we have at our disposal," he said.
"I was talking about the legal action, I was talking about arbitration, and of course I'm talking about the cross-retaliation."
A Government statement issued after the Admiralty House meeting warned of "disruption to critical supplies such as medicines" without "urgent" progress.
Lord Frost insisted there is still time to reach an agreement before the current "grace period" for chilled meats ends, but said the UK will consider "all options" if it proves impossible.
A senior source later confirmed that includes the option of extending the grace period unilaterally.
"The PM has been pretty clear that he can't see a reason why we shouldn't be able to sell the British banger in Northern Ireland. The biosecurity risk is zero. We don't see why there should be a problem with that," the source said.
Under the terms of the Protocol, Northern Ireland remains part of the EU single market, which in turn requires checks on some goods coming from the rest of the UK.
Lord Frost said negotiations will continue in an effort to find "pragmatic solutions" to their differences.
"What we really now need to do is find some solutions which support the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, support the peace process and allow things to return to normal," he said.