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Following Brexit, the Protocol introduced checks on a number of goods moving from mainland Britain across the Atlantic to Northern Ireland. But the checks have sparked fury among pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland, who fear this splits them from the rest of the UK, which they fear could destroy the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence. Lord Frost held crunch talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in London today, with neither side seemingly in a position to step down from their respective positions.
Just hours before the crucial meeting, top eurocrat Charles Michel threatened to slap Britain with trade sanctions unless Boris Johnson backs down in the row over the disputed Protocol.
The European Council President warned Brussels officials are reviewing the “tools at our disposal” if the UK refuses to implement huge amounts of Brussels red tape in the region.
Speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Michel said: “We believe deeply in the rule of law. Pacta sunt servanda – when agreements are reached, they must be implemented in good faith.
“And this is the expression of serenity and serene strength within the EU.
“We wish to be a loyal partner, we want a fruitful and cooperative partnership with the UK. That’s always been the spirit of the negotiations around the table, where we were able to showcase our unity.
“But we’re also ready to make use of the different tools at our disposal to protect our interests, the integrity of the single market and ensure our agreements are respected and upheld, and also to protect the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Michel and European Commission boss Ursula von der Leyen are scheduled to meet Mr Johnson in the UK later this week.
Under the terms of the Brexit trade agreement struck at the end of last year, the UK and EU can impose tariffs on the other’s exports for breaching the pact, pending independent arbitration.
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Now there are fears of a trade war erupting, with Brussels understood to be considering hitting British goods tariffs if the UK Government presses ahead and scraps more EU rules.
The bloc could also impose a sausage blockade on Northern Ireland that could be the trigger for the much-feared trade war.
Tensions intensified once again on Tuesday when Mr Johnson held a phone call with Mrs von der Leyen hours before today’s crunch meeting between Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic.
The Prime Minister warned the EU leader urgent action is needed to protect peace in Northern Ireland, but Mrs von der Leyen hit back and accused Downing Street of not implementing the Brexit divorce and trade deals.
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The European Commission President tweeted: “I expressed my deep concern on EU-UK TCA and WA implementation.
“We will discuss how to progress and ensure compliance in the margins of G7.”
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister and the President also spoke about the issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The Prime Minister set out that the UK is committed to finding practical solutions that protect the aims of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and minimise the impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland.
“He underlined the need for quick progress.”
The EU is already furious after the UK Government unilaterally scrapped swathes of EU red tape on Northern Ireland.
Before his meeting with EU counterpart Mr Sefcovic, Lord Frost lashed out against repeated threats from Brussels.
The Brexit minister said: “Further threats of legal action and trade retaliation from the EU won’t make life any easier for the shopper in Strabane who can’t buy their favourite product. Nor will it benefit the small business in Ballymena struggling to source produce from their supplier in Birmingham.
“What is needed is pragmatism and common sense solutions to resolve the issues as they are before us. This work is important. And it is ever more urgent.
“It is only by making substantial progress across the whole range of difficulties that we can show people in Northern Ireland that the Protocol can work in a pragmatic, proportionate and sustainable way – as was always intended.”
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