The UK has admitted that little progress has been made in efforts to avoid a “sausage war” trade dispute with the European Union, with Brussels accused of taking a “purist” approach to the row.
Brexit minister Lord Frost again threatened to suspend parts of the Brexit deal covering Northern Ireland in order to reduce barriers to goods moving across the Irish Sea, something that could trigger a trade war with Brussels.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hit out at the “totally disproportionate” way in which the deal was being implemented and warned the UK would take “the necessary steps” to ensure trade continues freely between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The UK and EU are locked in a dispute over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit divorce deal aimed at avoiding a hard border with Ireland.
Under the terms of the deal, deliveries of chilled meats – including sausages and burgers – could be effectively banned from crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland at the end of the month.
The UK is considering unilaterally extending the grace period covering sausage shipments, something that Brussels has warned could trigger a retaliation.
Lord Frost told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee: “We obviously face a difficulty on the chilled meats issue.
“We have asked and suggested to the EU that the right way forward would be to agree to extend the grace period, at least for a bit, to provide a bit of a breathing space for the current discussions to continue and try and find solutions.
“I still hold out some hope that they might agree to that because it seems a very narrow point to take such a purist view about.
“We are not having much progress but there is a little bit of time left before that.”
He added: “If we can’t agree it we will obviously have to consider all our options. I wouldn’t want to tie us down to anything at this point.
“It does seem to us, in a way, a very purist point for the EU to insist upon given that there is – as far as we are aware – no risk of Great British sausages ending up in the single market.
“We are not aware that it has happened, I would like to think somebody would have told us if it had – I think probably they would have.”
Lord Frost said it was a “pity” that the EU had taken the purist approach in a negotiation “that is already pretty complex and tense”.
He added that it was “odd” that products that were allowed before Brexit “suddenly stopped being legal and safe on January 1” when the UK left the single market.
“There’s no rational reason for that but it is the legal case.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol was part of the Brexit deal negotiated by Lord Frost and Prime Minister Mr Johnson.
The row dominated Mr Johnson’s talks with European Union leaders at the G7 summit, with the Prime Minister insisting he will do whatever it takes to keep goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods to ensure trade flows smoothly across the border with Ireland.
But in order to make sure products sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland comply with the rules, there are checks when they cross the Irish Sea.
The ban on chilled meats is because the UK is a “third country” and the EU does not allow imports of those products from outside the bloc.
Lord Frost acknowledged the issue has become more difficult because of the “weakening of consent” for the protocol arrangements in unionist groups.
DUP MP Ian Paisley asked Lord Frost if the Government would consider “unilaterally scrapping” the protocol, adding “this can’t go on much longer before something gives and I am seriously worried about the fabric of our society at this point”.
Lord Frost replied: “The Prime Minister has been very clear that all options are on the table. He has said several times we will do whatever is necessary, and that is the view that is held across Government because we are extremely concerned about the situation.”
He added that he senses there is a “slight misunderstanding” within the EU over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
It followed reports that French President Emmanuel Macron had said to Mr Johnson at the G7 summit that Northern Ireland is not part of the UK.
Lord Frost said: “I think we’ve sensed that this sort of slight misunderstanding about the status of Northern Ireland has been around for some time, possibly quite a long time.
“It is obviously rather concerning if people see things in that way; it doesn’t seem to us to be consistent with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which are very clear on that.”
European Commission spokesman Daniel Ferrie said he was not aware of a recent request by the UK to extend the chilled meats grace period.
“We are willing to find solutions, we are willing to work with the UK,” he said, pointing to the mechanisms within the deal to address issues.
“But for that we really need to see credible implementation by the UK of their commitments on their side.”