Truss issued trade war warning as Sefcovic blasts 'blackmail' and EU remains 'inflexible'

Reports are bubbling around the Northern Ireland Protocol, with threats pouring from all sides London signalling it will trigger Article 16 if it needs to and Brussels warning it will launch a trade war if it does. The Foreign Secretary has now been urged against pulling out of negotiations by a Whitehall insider.

Tobias Ellwood, a former minister and now the Chairman of the Foreign Secretary and Defence Committee, warned that triggering Article 16 would, in fact, be bad for the UK.

Part of the damage, he said, would be inflicted by the EU, voices from within which insist a trade war is on the cards.

But besides this, he stressed the act of “abandoning talks” itself would do harm to the UK.

Mr Ellwood told the Independent: “Abandoning the Protocol is self-defeating. It plays into Sinn Fein’s narrative that a united, peaceful Ireland is better for Northern Ireland.

“It will provoke a trade war with the EU at a time when the UK has done so well in leading the European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“And it will mean fewer movements of goods and higher inflation.”

He added: “The EU will respond by imposing tariffs on UK exports which will further reduce trade with continental Europe.”

But Ms Truss has insisted the Government cannot simply do nothing.

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She said it was the EU which was failing to show “requisite flexibility”, adding Whitehall has “no choice but to act”.

One Cambridge Professor of EU Law, Catherine Barnard, told the Guardian that if Article 16 was considered too risky, Ms Truss could instead fall back on Article 62 of the Vienna Convention.

This allows a country to withdraw from an international treaty when “a fundamental change of circumstances which has occurred with regard to those existing at the time of the conclusion of a treaty, and which was not foreseen by the parties, may not be invoked as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from the treaty”.

Professor Barnard added the caveat that the parties did foresee divisions in Northern Ireland before the Protocol was agreed in the first place.

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Mr Sefcovic, who is leading negotiations on the EU side, said Brussels would not put up with threats in ongoing talks.

He insisted: “We in the European Union never work with threats. We never work with blackmail. We try to work with constructive engagement, and that is what I’m pleading for.”

This came shortly after reports suggested the bloc would launch a trade war in response to Protocol talks falling completely.

Bloomberg cited one “person familiar with the matter” who said it would “likely move quickly to launch infringement procedures against the UK and suspend their trade agreement”, and could even “halt [separate] talks” on the status of Gibraltar.

Former Brexit Minister Lord Frost said he had seen all this before.

Responding to the EU claim the UK has put forward no proposals in talks, he wrote in a post on Twitter: “The EU simply has not engaged with or taken seriously the UK position.

“This persistent refusal to engage or grasp our thinking suggests that the EU has no intention of helping resolve the current difficulties except on their terms…

“So HMG’s only option is to act on its own.”