By Sam Blewett, David Hughes and Richard Wheeler, PA Political Staff
Brexit minister Lord Frost hinted that action over Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal could be taken by Christmas as he called for “short, intensive” talks with the EU to get under way swiftly.
Mr Frost said on Monday that “serious” discussions with Brussels should take place after European officials respond to UK proposals, which he expects “within the next couple of weeks”.
But if the UK and the EU cannot strike an agreement, Mr Frost said Britain will consider what is seen to be the nuclear option of triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The move would effectively tear up parts of the deal to avoid a hard border with Ireland, which he negotiated with the EU last December.
Lord Frost told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that he would “soon be sending” new legal texts to the EU with proposals to resolve the “serious political problem”.
“I hope that might change over the next couple of weeks or so. It does need to be resolved though, one way or another, whether it’s through negotiations or Article 16,” he told a fringe event arranged by the Policy Exchange think tank.
“We need a short, intensive and good faith talk process to happen quite soon, and as we come out of that we will know if an agreement is possible or not – and if it’s not possible then obviously we will be looking into Article 16.
“But we need to try everything. We need to show that we’ve tried everything and we need to see if it is possible to agree something.”
Mr Frost was asked if the problems surrounding Article 16 could be over by Christmas.
“Will it be over by Christmas? I think something will be over by Christmas,” he responded cryptically.
He said Article 16 would not be triggered “randomly”, adding that the proper process would be followed to provide the “maximum possible predictability and certainty” to traders in the region.
The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, but as a result has imposed a trade barrier on products crossing the Irish Sea from Britain.
Unionists want British prime minister Boris Johnson to tear it up, a move he has so far resisted as the government presses for a renegotiation with Brussels.
Earlier in the day, Lord Frost told Conservatives in the main conference hall that the new set of legal texts would help “establish a new balance for a lasting future”.
“So I urge the EU to be ambitious. It’s no use tinkering around the edges. We need significant change,” he said.
“If we can agree something better, we can get back to where we wanted to be — an independent Britain with friendly relations with the EU based on free trade.
“But we cannot wait forever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will need to act, using the Article 16 safeguard mechanism, to address the impact the protocol is having on Northern Ireland.”