The EU is growing increasingly fearful about the escalation of the explosive Brexit row with the UK, centred around the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Britain has continued to insist large parts of the trade mechanism must be completely overhauled in order for it to work effectively, demands the EU has so far strongly refused to cave to. Intensive talks over recent days between the two sides over the issue have collapsed, increasing the chances of the UK losing patience and triggering Article 16.
This gives each side the power to suspend certain parts of the agreement it deems no longer viable for economic, social or environmental reasons.
But German publication Focus Online has now said Mr Johnson’s hand is “said to hover over the red button”.
Bernd Lange, the chairman of the European Parliament’s trade committee, fears the UK could follow through with its threat following a meeting between the UK’s Brexit minister Lord Frost and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels on Friday.
He said: “Rumours are growing that the British government will resort to this remedy this Friday after another meeting between EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic and UK negotiator David Frost.”
But Mr Lange warned that if such a scenario was to happen, “serious consequences” are being discussed in Brussels.
This could potentially lead to the suspension of further agreements between the UK and EU, as well as the possibility of a potentially devastating trade war between the two sides.
Mr Lange warned: “The EU will take countermeasures.
“The previous constructive and wait-and-see attitude of the EU will then no longer be sustainable.”
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The EU would then have to make tough decisions on possible tariffs and market access restrictions, the termination of cooperation in research and data exchange, and “the suspension of part of the trade agreement or the termination of the whole trade agreement”.
There are also fears of yet another Christmas showdown between the UK and EU.
During months of tense and often bitter post-Brexit trade deal talks last year, the two sides were only able to avoid a potentially devastating no deal outcome with an agreement at the 11th hour.
Reports about the threat of a hardening of the “soft Brexit” have seen many from within the EU “preparing for the worst-case scenario”.
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Anna Cavazzini, who is Chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Internal Market Committee, said: “Unfortunately, we are back to the dynamics of 2019 with threats of failure of the talks and heated rhetoric on the British side.
“On the EU side, everyone is rolling their eyes and preparing for the worst case scenario.”
On Wednesday, members of the House of Lords told a Dail committee a no-deal Brexit will be back on the table if the UK decides to trigger Article 16 of the Protocol.
Lord Jay of Ewelme, chair of the House of Lords sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, warned such a move from Britain would risk resetting negotiations and cold result in a no-deal outcome.
He said: “I agree with you very much on what to say about the risks of Article 16 being imposed or being triggered and the response to Article 16 by the European Union, potentially leading to all the complicated negotiations with the prospect of a no-deal as the last stage.
“That is one end of the spectrum.
“The other end of the spectrum, which I think we can’t rule it out, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rule out, although I must say that the prospects are not looking brilliant at the moment, is for a negotiated settlement to be reached between now and Christmas or over Christmas.
“I don’t think we can rule that out.”
Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg.