In a call the day after Brexit minister David Frost set out proposals for changes to the protocol Mr Johnson told Ms Von der Leyen that the way it was currently being implemented was “unsustainable”. The prime minister later repeated the same message in a phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel, which appeared to mark the beginning of a concerted campaign to undermine continental support for the protocol.
But soon after the call with Ms Von der Leyen, the Commission president made clear that Brussels remains implacably opposed to reopening negotiations on the arrangements agreed by the prime minister in 2019 as part of his EU withdrawal deal.
“The EU will continue to be creative and flexible within the protocol framework,” she said. “But we will not renegotiate. We must jointly ensure stability and predictability in Northern Ireland.”
The face-off has set the scene for a costly trade war in the autumn, when “grace periods” run out on the implementation of the regulations agreed by Mr Johnson in areas such as chilled meat exports, parcel delivery and supermarket supplies.
Downing Street today made clear that the UK has not ruled out tearing up the protocol if the EU refuses to make concessions over the summer.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “We are not calling for the scrapping of the protocol at this time.”
Under repeated questioning, the spokesman was unable to point to any breaches by the EU of the terms agreed by Mr Johnson in the protocol for the creation of a new customs border in the Irish Sea and the implementation of checks on goods travelling between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Instead, Downing Street is blaming the EU for operating the new rules in an excessively “purist” way.
The No 10 spokesperson said that Mr Johnson told the European Commission president that the way his protocol was operating was “unsustainable”, adding that solutions to the problems facing the people of Northern Ireland as a result “could not be found through the existing mechanisms of the protocol”.
He told Ms Von der Leyen that this was why the UK has set out “proposals for significant changes to it”.
“He urged the EU to look at those proposals seriously and work with the UK on them,” said the spokesperson. “There is a huge opportunity to find reasonable, practical solutions to the difficulties facing people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and thereby to put the relationship between the UK and the EU on a better footing. They agreed to remain in touch”.
Meanwhile, reports from Brussels suggested that Britain will be given a final warning by the end of next week to meet its commitments under the Northern Ireland Protocol or face court.
The Commission reportedly plans to file a “reasoned opinion” on alleged UK breaches of the protocol by the end of the month. If the UK government refuses to back down, the commission could then refer the case – which relates to unilateral extension of “grace periods” delaying the implementation of Brexit red tape on parcel deliveries and supermarket supplies – to the EU’s Court of Justice in Luxembourg.