Rattled Boris Johnson fuelled a growing row with Brussels today as he warned he “will obviously not hesitate” to trigger a key clause of the Brexit deal.
Ramping up diplomatic tensions with the EU, the Prime Minister threatened to use Article 16 to block an imminent ban on sending chilled meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Restrictions are due to come into force next month but the UK and Brussels are locked in an increasingly bitter row over Britain’s reluctance to fully implement the Northern Ireland Protocol part of the Brexit agreement, which Mr Johnson signed last December.
The PM was ambushed in a series of early morning one-to-one meetings with European leaders in the margins of the G7 summit in Cornwall.
Speaking after talks in Carbis Bay, he fumed: “If the Protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16.”
The clause, dubbed “the nuclear option”, allows either side to take unilateral action to override parts of the deal.
It has only been used once – in January when the EU invoked it to stop coronavirus vaccines being shipped from the bloc to the UK.
Brussels quickly rowed back after widespread outrage.
The Protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market to avoid a hard border with the Republic – the UK’s only land frontier with the EU.
But the move creates a trade barrier in the Irish Sea for goods crossing from Great Britain – something the PM previously promised he would never agree to.
Unionists in the province say it splits the UK and British ministers are desperate for EU leaders to give ground as the deadline approaches.
But bloc chiefs say Mr Johnson should honour the agreement he made.
A No10 spokeswoman said the PM and EU leaders “agreed on the need for continued meaningful engagement to resolve the outstanding issues”.
Mr Johnson added: “I’ve talked to some of our friends here today who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country, a single territory. I just need to get that into their heads.”
He went on: “I think the treaty we signed – I signed – is perfectly reasonable; I don’t think that the interpretation or application of the Protocol is sensible or pragmatic.
“What I’m hearing from our friends in the EU is that they understand the strength of our feelings on this, and they understand why governments might want to protect the territorial integrity of the UK, plus the UK’s internal market.”
Wielding the Article 16 threat, he added: “It is up to our EU friends and partners to understand that we will do whatever it takes.”
Mr Johnson and Brexit Minister Lord David Frost, who as the Government’s chief negotiator brokered the deal for the UK, held a series of meetings with European leaders in Carbis Bay.
They spoke with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel before 10am.
EU leaders ganged up to warn the PM to honour what he signed up to.
Mrs von der Leyen said: “Both sides must implement what we agreed on. There is complete EU unity on this.”
Mr Macron offered a “reset” of relations with Britain but urged the PM to “keep his word” over the Protocol, according to an official. “The President told Boris Johnson there needed to be a reset of the Franco-British relationship,” said a source.
“This can happen provided that he keeps his word with the Europeans.”
An EU insider insisted the bloc was not trying to be “punitive”, as the PM pleaded for “compromise on all sides”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab fanned the flames by accusing Brussels of being “bloody minded”.
He told the BBC: “They can be more pragmatic about the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that is win-win or they can be bloody-minded and purist about it, in which case I am afraid we will not allow the integrity of the UK to be threatened.”
Downing Street signalled a toughening of the Government’s position as a “sausage war” trade dispute looms.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “The PM’s desire currently is to work within the existing Protocol to find radical changes and pragmatic solutions.
“That is our immediate focus.”
But that left the door open to the unilateral action threatened by Mr Johnson.
The brewing row over checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland had always threatened to derail Mr Johnson’s carefully-laid plans to project post-Brexit Britain on the global stage as he hosted world leaders in Cornwall.
He narrowly avoided a rift with US President Joe Biden, who has Irish roots, when the pair held talks in Carbis Bay on Thursday.