Pull the plug! Belgian deputy PM urges von der Leyen to bin UK trade deal

Angela Merkel avoids handshake with Ursula von der Leyen

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The move illustrates the growing frustration at the heart of the bloc with respect to the increasingly bitter row over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Mr Van Peteghem, who serves as Minister of Finance in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, made his declaration during an interview with Bloomberg television.

Speaking on Friday, he urged the bloc to take a hardline approach with Britain.

Specifically Mr Van Peteghem said the Commissioner, headed up by Ms von der Leyen, should consider scrapping the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) if the UK triggers Article 16, as Boris Johnson is widely believed to be pondering.

He stressed: “It’s important that negotiations continue and that we have a good relationship with the UK.”

Speaking after talks with the UK’s Brexit Minister Lord David Frost, Mr Sefcovic said: “We hear a lot about Article 16 at the moment.

“Let there be no doubt that triggering Article 16 to seek the renegotiation of the Protocol would have serious consequences.”

The UK has warned that it may trigger Article 16, which allows either side to take unilateral action if they deem their agreement governing post-Brexit trade is having a strongly negative impact on their interests.

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Mr Sefcovic said triggering Article 16 would result in instability in Northern Ireland and amount to a rejection of the EU’s attempt to find a compromise.

He is planning to travel to London for more talks this week.

Meanwhile a UK Government spokesman said Lord Frost had “underlined that progress had been limited and that the EU’s proposals did not currently deal effectively with the fundamental difficulties in the way the Protocol was operating”.

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The spokesman added: “In the UK view, these gaps could still be bridged through further intensive discussions.”

By putting checks on some goods crossing between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, many in Northern Ireland’s Unionist community say the protocol has breached the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The EU says tighter controls are required to protect its single market of 450 million people.

Speaking to journalists before his meeting with Mr Sefcovic, Lord Frost said: “We are not going to trigger Article 16 today, but Article 16 is very much on the table.”

A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters Britain would press on with negotiations to try to resolve the problems.

As expectations grow that London might resort to that option, Frost insisted the best way of avoiding it was “if we can reach an agreement, an essential agreement that provides a sustainable solution”.

He said there was a “significant” gap between the EU and the UK on the matter and that time was running out for his negotiations with Sefcovic.

Former Treasury adviser Mujtaba Rahman believes it is only a matter of time before Article 16 in invoked.

On Friday, he tweeted: “I understand full Cabinet – chaired by @BorisJohnson – will discuss Article 16 for the first time end of next week (Thurs/Fri).”

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