A Government move to suspend elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol is “not inevitable”, Brandon Lewis has said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said triggering the Article 16 mechanism within the protocol remained an “absolute last resort” and the Government still wanted to secure a negotiated solution on post-Brexit trading arrangements.
His comments came as talks between London and Brussels to resolve their differences over Brexit’s Irish Sea border remain deadlocked.
Despite mounting speculation that the UK is set to suspend parts of the contentious trading arrangements – by triggering Article 16 – Mr Lewis rejected the suggestion the Government had already made up its mind.
He also expressed surprise at reports from Brussels that the EU was considering the retaliatory steps if would take in the event of a unilateral move by the UK, including the potential suspension of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement.
“It’s not inevitable at all,” Mr Lewis told the PA news agency when asked on the Government’s position on triggering Article 16.
“Our legal position is that the conditions have already been met for us to trigger Article 16. I think it’s self-evident that we don’t want to do that, otherwise we would have already done it. And we haven’t done it because we want to come to an agreement with the EU.
“We’ve been very clear that the best solution is one that’s an agreed solution with the EU.
“That has more stability, has more certainty for businesses who ultimately are the area that are facing some of the biggest challenges with this (and it) affects ultimately consumers as well.
“So we want to get an agreement with the EU. But we do think the conditions have been met. And that’s something we’ve just got to be very open about the reality of that.”
Asked whether the Government had considered the likely EU response to the triggering of Article 16, including the potential for Brussels to suspend the wider trade deal with the UK, Mr Lewis told PA: “I never get into hypotheticals and I’m slightly surprised to see those kinds of threats coming and comments from the EU.
“Our position has always been we believe the conditions have been met for us to trigger Article 16. And, of course, let’s remember, Article 16 is part of the protocol.
“This will be working within the protocol to resolve an issue that can’t be resolved in any other way. And for us it is an absolute last resort.
“We don’t want to trigger it, we want these discussions that we’re having, these negotiations with the EU right now, to be productive, to come to a conclusion.”
Asked if the Government had already decided to trigger Article 16 later in the month, Mr Lewis replied: “No, not at all.”