Tory threats to EU over Article 16 of Northern Ireland protocol could badly backfire

'Johnson and Frost are playing a dangerous game. EU watchers are predicting far from sitting back and taking it on the chin the EU may launch immediate action against the UK'

Article 16 threat

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at Unite, and a Contributing Editor of Left Foot Forward.

The Tory Government’s ongoing sabre rattling with the EU over Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, contained in the Brexit deal, which allows the UK or EU to take unilateral safeguard measures if either side decides that the deal is creating serious problems, is now wearing thinner in Brussels.

Boris Johnson’s and Lord Frost’s repeated threat to the EU of triggering Article 16 was repeated yet again last week with Frost saying it was “very much on the table and has been since July”.

Article 16 is intended for use only if the Northern Ireland Protocol agreement is causing long-term “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

But Johnson and Frost’s threats are ideological – they are looking to remove the European Court of Justice (ECJ) from having any oversight role and are playing to their Tory base to keep the anti EU pot boiling.

The EU’s major concern is that Johnson and Frost are planning to use Article 16 to demolish customs arrangements, food and product standards, VAT and state aid rules, while opening the back door into the single market.

Recently (and quietly) a warning was fired by Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister, Vincent Van Peteghem Has who says that if the UK reneges ‘significantly’ on the Northern Ireland protocol, the EU may give notice that it intends to collapse the entire Brexit trade deal.

A clause in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement allows either side to terminate the deal with 12 months notice. The Tory Government is betting the farm that it can use the year to substantially renegotiate things it does not like the TAC deal (including employment protections) while keeping the anti EU rhetoric going at home – risking a return to a no-deal Brexit.

But Johnson and Frost are playing a dangerous game. EU watchers are predicting far from sitting back and taking it on the chin the EU may launch immediate action against the UK – as the French did over fishing boat licences.

With Tory sleaze problems mounting, Johnson’s popularity waning and the UK public taking a more sceptical view of the Government’s constant EU bashing it is possible that the EU will act quickly in the run-up to Christmas, to make it clear they have had enough of the threats and game playing. Increasing border checks alone will create the Tory nightmare of public hostility to long tailbacks of lorries at Dover, long delays at European airports, delays to UK imports and exports and shortages in the shops.

Labour should be prepared for this possibility and must pin the blame squarely where such a calamity lies – with Johnson and Frost.

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