Boris Johnson has warned Brussels he will not hesitate to take unilateral measures to protect the position of Northern Ireland in the increasingly bitter row over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The UK Prime Minister met key players from the EU side in the margins in the G7 summit as wrangling over the Northern Ireland Protocol threatened to overshadow his hosting of the international gathering.
While Downing Street characterised the discussions as “constructive”, Mr Johnson complained that some of the leaders failed to understand the UK is a single country.
“I just need to get that into their heads,” he said.
He warned that unless there was a solution he would invoke Article 16 of the protocol which allows either side to take unilateral action if its implementation were to lead to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
His comments followed a series of talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council leader Charles Michel.
“I think we can sort it out but… it is up to our EU friends and partners to understand that we will do whatever it takes," Mr Johnson said.
“I think if the protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16, as I have said before.
“Don’t forget, the EU themselves invoked Article 16 in January, to disapply the protocol, so they can stop removal of vaccines from the EU to the UK.
“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.”
The protocol – which is intended to protect the peace process – effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market to avoid a hard border with the Republic, meaning a trade barrier in the Irish Sea for goods crossing from Great Britain.
Mr Macron and Mrs von der Leyen have both insisted that the protocol is the only way to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland and that there can be no renegotiation of its terms.
However, the UK has complained the EU’s “purist” interpretation of the rules is strangling trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and leading to a rise in sectarian tensions – particularly among unionists who fear their place UK is under threat.
Downing Street has previously indicated the British Government would be prepared to unilaterally delay the full implementation of the protocol to prevent a ban on chilled meats crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
Restrictions on British-produced chilled meats entering Northern Ireland are due to come into force at the end of the month.
Delaying the checks without Brussels’ agreement risks triggering a “sausage war” trade dispute, with the EU threatening to respond to any breach of the deal signed by the Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson insisted that he did not want to see a trade war, but said that it was up to the EU whether the protocol was applied “in a pragmatic way or a theologically draconian way”.
“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,” he said.