Ministers have been warned that tariffs and quotas could be slapped on some products by the EU if Boris Johnson overrides the Brexit deal in a trade dispute over the sale of sausages.
Tensions are rising ahead of a crunch meeting on Wednesday to resolve issues arising from part of the agreement known as the Northern Ireland protocol.
The UK government is reportedly considering unilaterally extending the grace periods under the protocol that give businesses in Northern Ireland time to adapt to new rules – including for the import of chilled meats such as sausages and mince from Great Britain.
The grace periods are due to expire at the end of June, but according to the Telegraph, Johnson is contemplating extending them in the face of a lack of progress towards a new agreement on about 30 issues relating to checks on animals, goods and medicines.
Maroš Sefčovič, a European commission vice-president who is travelling to London to lead the negotiations from Brussels’ side, wrote an article for the same newspaper in the run-up to the talks, warning that the EU would act “swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations”.
Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and member of the European parliament’s UK coordination group, said the UK should “stick to its commitments and implement them”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said: “These rules were accepted by the UK and they are easy to meet. It’s just that there are people to hire, IT to update in order to be able to do checks on sanitary rules – simply because your sausages are not exported, they are going to Northern Ireland and they are entering the single market.”
Loiseau said Sefčovič was warning that if the UK continues to breach the protocol, then tariffs and quotas designed to regulate the import of goods into the EU by upping the price and putting a cap on numbers could be necessary.
“We don’t want to reach that,” she added. “But we are warning – you signed an agreement, you have to implement it, otherwise there are measures we can take that will protect our single market … The international reputation of the UK is at stake.”
George Eustice, the environment secretary, said there was an “outright ban” on chicken nuggets and sausages being sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. “Clearly that is bonkers,” he complained.
The UK has already “done a huge amount of work” on fixing some issues arising from the protocol, said Eustice, accusing senior politicians in Brussels of having been “quite slow to date”.
He added: “We will be working with the EU to try to get solutions to this.”
Šefčovič will meet Frost for dinner on Tuesday evening ahead of four hours of back-to-back talks on Wednesday.
One EU source said Loiseau’s comments regarding the threat of trade quotas being imposed on the EU reflected the fact that the Brexit deal was now “weaponised”, with a range of remedies and penalties at the EU’s disposal that were not there in January when the withdrawal agreement involving the Northern Ireland protocol and citizens’ rights was signed and ratified by both sides.
“We now have the principle of good faith in a legal agreement and if there are any problems in the trade and co-operation agreement we have legal instruments at our disposal including trade sanctions”.
It follows Northern Irish businesses calling on both sides to stop a Brexit “blame game” and deliver urgent solutions to end growing tensions over the checks on food and goods crossing the Irish Sea into the region.
The protocol has been hugely controversial in Northern Ireland, contributing to violence over Easter and fissures in the Democratic Unionist party, which is officially campaigning to have it scrapped.