Boris facing ‘huge dilemma’ over next Brexit move as PM considers ‘high-risk gamble’

Brexit: Expert explains row over NI Protocol concessions

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The Prime Minister is weighing up his next move, as he determines the best response to the EU’s proposals to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol. On Wednesday, the European Commission’s Vice President Marcoš Šefčovič unveiled EU plans to deal with friction caused by the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement.

In proposals that went further than the UK expected, the bloc offered to drastically slash customs checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

About 80 percent of border checks on animals and plants would be removed under the plans.

It means chilled meats such as British sausages, which became the centre of attention earlier this year, will be allowed to be sold in Northern Ireland without threat.

Analysts believe the extent to which the EU compromised in their proposal makes it much harder for the Prime Minister to trigger Article 16 of the treaty to legally suspend aspects of the deal’s implementation.

“[They] have gone much further than the UK Government was expecting, creating a huge dilemma for Prime Minister Boris Johnson who will have to decide what to do next,” Mujtaba Rahman, European Managing Director of geopolitical risk firm Eurasia Group, wrote in Politico.

“Without such a significant move by Brussels, UK ministers believe Johnson would have triggered Article 16 of the protocol, which allows it to be suspended in an emergency, probably by the end of November.”

After speaking to insiders, he added: “Aides around Johnson recognise that a ‘fork in the road’ will be reached, and the Prime Minister will have to decide whether to compromise or escalate.”

Hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative party, and Unionists in Northern Ireland, see the continued oversight of the international treaty by the European Court of Justice as unacceptable.

Despite Lord Frost pushing for a change in the oversight of the deal, the EU has refused to budge.

Analysts say it leaves Mr Johnson in a tricky position as both compromise and escalation are riddled with risk.

Mr Rahman said settling with the EU would likely lead to a “high-risk gamble” in which Northern Ireland’s DUP would collapse the province’s power-sharing agreement to force new elections. This would give Unionists the chance to protest their hatred of the deal.

It would also risk infuriating Conservative backbenchers.

Warning Mr Johnson against backing down, Wokingham MP Sir John Redwood said: “The EU proposals for the Northern Ireland Protocol do accept they have damaged the UK internal market on trade, breaking the agreement.

“They still fail to fix the EU’s wish to control Northern Ireland and to legislate for it against the wishes of the Unionists.”

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Escalating the row with Brussels would risk undermining Mr Johnson’s claim he “got Brexit done”, damage the UK’s relationship with the US and potentially lead to a full on trade war with the continent.

Mr Rahman said such a scenario would give the Prime Minister a new “headache over supply chain problems which threaten to overshadow Christmas”.

Lord Frost is currently engaged in negotiations with Mr Šefčovič over the Protocol, with the two politicians meeting in London yesterday.

The UK is hoping to squeeze further concessions out of the EU in a bid to avoid Mr Johnson being forced to consider using the Article 16 nuclear option.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the considerable effort made by Vice President Sefcovic and his team to address the issues that have arisen on the Protocol.

“We are studying the proposals positively and constructively. Our officials are working closely with their EU counterparts to understand the details.

“Nevertheless it is clear there is still a substantial gap between our two positions. Accordingly there is much work to do. Both we and the EU now have proposals on the table.

“We need to discuss them intensively in the days to come to see if the gaps can be bridged and a solution found which delivers the significant change needed.”

Lord Frost is expected to report back to the Prime minister on whether the has been progress in talks in three weeks’ time.

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