Brexit Minister Lord Frost said the UK would push for "significant" changes (Image: VICKIE FLORES/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The EU has rejected Britain's demand for "significant" changes to trade rules governing post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland in a furious escalation of the row.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said “we will not agree to a renegotiation" of the Northern Ireland protocol, barely two hours after Brexit Minister Lord Frost said the UK would push for major changes.
It sets the scene for a major stand-off with Brussels, after Boris Johnson's Government – which negotiated the deal – said it would be prepared to rip up the protocol when an agreed grace period ends in September.
Mr Sefcovic said: “We take note of the statement made by Lord Frost today.
“We will continue to engage with the UK, also on the suggestions made today. We are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol."
He added: “We must prioritise stability and predictability in Northern Ireland. I look forward to speaking to Lord Frost soon.”
It comes after Lord Frost told peers on Wednesday the UK “cannot go on as we are” with the Northern Ireland Protocol – but stopped short of triggering moves to completely override the trade rule book for Ulster.
But the peer, who negotiated the protocol Boris Johnson signed, had insisted there must be “significant change” and “we do not shy away from that”.
The row over the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of the Brexit agreement which governs trade in Ulster – comes amid feared supermarket shortages and the so-called sausage wars.
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The Protocol was negotiated by the PM to avoid a hard border with Ireland and effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the bloc’s single market for goods.
It means checks on goods being sent from mainland Great Britain into the single market.
Lord Frost said the two parties must strike a “new balance” in the arrangements was needed to enable goods meeting EU and UK standards – rather than just the rules set by Brussels – to circulate in Northern Ireland.
But Mr Sefcovic's immediate rejection for calls for the EU to return to the table could mean the row spectacularly escalates in the days and weeks ahead.
US President Joe Biden is proud of his Irish roots and his administration is also taking a keen interest in the issue.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said “it’s something that we’re watching”, adding: “We’ve consistently said that we welcome the provisions in both the trade and co-operation agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and the European Union, which, importantly, help to protect the gains of the Belfast and Good Friday Agreement."
Mr Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, a former secretary of state, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the president is “deeply immersed” in the issue.
Marks & Spencer’s chairman, meanwhile, warned there will be some “gaps on shelves” in Northern Ireland this Christmas due to problems with the post-Brexit agreement on the region.
Archie Norman, who has requested a meeting with Lord Frost, told Today: “This Christmas, I can tell you already, we’re having to make decisions to de-list product for Northern Ireland because it’s simply not worth the risk of trying to get it through.
“We’ve already made that decision. We’re waiting to see how serious it’s going to be, but if it’s anything like southern Ireland (the Republic of Ireland), and at the moment it’s set to be, then it’s going to be very, very serious for customers.”