Ireland’s government has met to discuss contingency planning in case of a European Union trade war with the UK, deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday.
London is currently at loggerheads with Brussels over the implementation of post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, which it claims are unworkable.
The two sides are locked in talks to try to resolve the dispute, with the EU warning of “serious consequences” if the UK unilaterally suspends the trading protocol.
“We’re making preparations,” Varadkar, who as prime minister in 2019 was credited with convincing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to strike a divorce deal with the EU.
“We had a meeting yesterday (Monday) of the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit, essentially to dust down and restart our contingency preparations should we get into difficulty,” he told RTE radio.
No one wants to see the EU halt the wider trade deal with the UK but if London triggers the Article 16 suspension clause of the protocol, Brussels may have “no option” but to introduce “balancing measures”, he said.
“I really hope Britain doesn’t go down this road,” Varadkar added, warning that it “potentially undoes” Brexit and would be bad for the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The EU has submitted a raft of proposals to modify the protocol, including eliminating checks on most goods heading to Northern Ireland from mainland Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales.
But the UK’s insistence that an international arbiter replace the European Court of Justice to rule on disputes is a step too far for Brussels.
The protocol effectively kept the British-run province, which has the UK’s only land border with the EU, in the European customs union and single market.
Checks were designed to prevent goods entering the bloc by the back door via member state Ireland.
But unionist parties in Northern Ireland oppose the arrangement, arguing it threatens the province’s place in the wider UK.
A Queen’s University Belfast poll found in late October, however, that a small majority of people (52 percent) in Northern Ireland viewed the protocol as a “good thing”.
Complicating the issue is the need to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland — a key plank of the 1998 peace deal that ended decades of violence over British rule — that neither side wants to jeopardise.
UK Brexit minister David Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic are due to meet in London this Friday.