NI protocol row ‘most pressing trade problem’, says Brexit minister

Diverging from EU rules essential for Britain to prosper, David Frost tells conference

Britain's Brexit minister David Frost has described Britain's dispute with the European Union (EU) over the Northern Ireland protocol as its most urgent and pressing trade problem. And he said diverging from EU rules and standards was essential for Britain to prosper after Brexit.

"When we discuss trade in this country, we must not forget that our most urgent and pressing problem, an issue of the highest national interest, is to make sure we can trade freely within our own country. I don't think that's too much to ask, and that's where we need to get to one way or the other," he told the Margaret Thatcher Conference hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank.

He said Britain must deregulate areas such as data, gene editing, transport, medical devices and artificial intelligence to make them more dynamic and less bureaucratic than under the EU.

“We haven’t successfully rolled back the frontiers of the European Union from Britain with Brexit, only to import the European model after all this time. So we need to reform fast, and those reforms are going to involve doing things differently from the EU. If we stick to EU models but behind our own tariff wall and with a smaller market, obviously we’re not going to succeed. That’s why I so often talk about divergence, not for the sake of it, but because it’s a national necessity.”


Lord Frost was speaking after secretary of state for international trade Anne-Marie Trevelyan said that Article 16 would not be triggered within the next few weeks.

“I don’t think anyone’s calling Article 16 before Christmas, absolutely not,” she told the Telegraph.

“I’m, as ever, profoundly confident in Lord Frost’s ability to find a steady way through that ensures that those who live on the island of Ireland can do so in peace and tranquility.”

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman insisted there was no timetable for the use of Article 16, adding that the British government believed the conditions for triggering it had been met.

Article 16 is part of the Northern Ireland protocol, the section of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which deals with the North. The protocol avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, which means additional paperwork and physical checks on some goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.


Earlier on Monday, Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a new veterinary agreement with the EU as part of an overhaul of the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). Keir said it was time for a "transparent and honest" analysis of the inadequacies of the deal Lord Frost negotiated on behalf of Britain and that a new veterinary agreement would have two benefits.

“First, it would help to get through the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol. Second, it would cut red tape and barriers for exporters across the UK,” he told the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) annual conference.

He said Labour would also try to reach an agreement on mutual recognition of conformity assessments across all sectors and seek regulatory equivalence for financial services and mutual recognition of professional qualifications. He said Britain should try to ensure that its data protection rules are equivalent to the EU’s and get a better deal for British hauliers to ease supply chain problems.

“This is a plan that follows closely what many of you have told me is needed to move us towards the closer trade arrangement that we need with the EU. I believe all of this is achievable by robustly defending our interests and patiently negotiating,” he told the conference.

The EU and UK are trying to resolve a row over the protocol, the arrangements agreed in 2019 that were designed to prevent Brexit creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times