The EU has warned it is at “a crossroads in our relationship with the UK” and “patience is very, very, very thin” as the two sides failed to make any breakthroughs on issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Talks between European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and Brexit minister Lord Frost, aimed at ending the deadlock over the implementation of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in Northern Ireland, ended without significant progress on Wednesday.
At a press conference afterwards, Mr Sefcovic said the bloc had not ruled out “cross-retaliation” if the UK does not abide by the agreement.
He refused to set a deadline by which the EU could take further steps, but warned “patience really is very, very, very thin”.
Mr Sefcovic insisted he came to London to “find the solution” but options on the table included the suspension of co-operation in certain sectors and quota tariffs.
“The trust, which will be at the heart of every partnership, needs to be restored,” he said.
Lord Frost has accused the EU of taking an “extremely purist” approach to the agreement concerning checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK as required under the terms of the Withdrawl Agreement signed on Christmas Eve.
But Mr Sefcovic suggested the UK had not fully appreciated the impact of Brexit.
“It might be that our British partners could not have fully estimated what will be the consequences of the Brexit they have chosen,” he said.
“What it would mean to leave the single market, the customs union, how complex it can be for businesses, for the Government, for IT systems, for training of personnel.
“And now I will say gradually more and more things are coming to the table… some of them which we’ve foreseen, some of them which were unforeseen.”
Lord Frost refused to rule out the prospect that the UK could unilaterally delay the implementation of checks on chilled meats – due to come in at the end of the month and a key point of contention – if there was no agreement before then.
But Mr Sefcovic said: “If the UK were to take further unilateral action over the coming weeks, we will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international obligations.”
He said the EU had already shown “unusual flexibility” in extending the grace period attached to the Northern Ireland Protocol which had taken “enormous trust”.
But he added: “I didn’t come here to put any ultimatums to our UK friends, I was just telling them, as if you go down that path, I mean, this is what will happen – we hope to avoid it, we want to discuss it, we want to be very clear and honest about how we see the current situation, and we still hope that we can work it out.”