UK ministers have rejected Washington’s linking of the lifting of metal tariffs with a dispute over post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland, describing it as a ‘false narrative’.
The Financial Times reported on Wednesday that the US was delaying a deal to remove Trump-era tariffs on steel and aluminium because of concerns that Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, is preparing to unilaterally suspend parts of the UK-EU trade deal. The US agreed to lift the tariffs on EU steel and aluminium in October.
Penny Mordaunt, UK trade minister, told the House of Commons on Thursday that the Johnson government did not accept such a link. “It might be true in terms of how some people in the United States feel, but it is a false narrative. These are two entirely separate issues,” she said.
Johnson’s spokesperson added he was “not aware” of the US administration linking the two issues. “We are working closely with the Biden administration,” he said, adding that Washington was looking to “de-escalate the issue”.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, UK international trade secretary, will travel to the US on Monday for a three-day visit to New York and Washington. One Whitehall official confirmed the tariffs would be “one of the issues she will raise” in meetings, including with commerce secretary Gina Raimondo.
Trevelyan told MPs she remained hopeful of striking a broad UK-US trade pact. “We have always been clear that a good deal is better than a quick deal and we are here when the US are ready to continue those discussions.”
UK steelmakers warned that unless there was a deal on the Trump-era tariffs within days they would lose further sales to EU producers, as their tariffs would be lifted on January 1. The two sides should “strain every sinew” to get a deal, UK Steel said in a statement.
“Since those tariffs came in, our exports to the US have declined from 350,000 tonnes in 2018 to 200,000 tonnes in 2020,” it said. “While many of our US customers have stood by us, it is imperative that all parties work together to come to an agreement that provides the UK with the same tariff-free quotas the EU has already secured.”
Johnson is facing pressure from Washington, Brussels and Paris not to trigger Article 16, the safeguarding clause of the Northern Ireland protocol that overrides part of the UK’s exit from the EU. British ministers have suggested this is now unlikely to happen before Christmas.
Democratic legislators in Washington have publicly warned that by threatening to trigger Article 16, Britain could destabilise trade relationships and “hard-earned peace”.
The UK prime minister argues that the protocol needs to be changed to safeguard the peace process. Unionists complain that increased border checks on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland has put strains on the union.
Emmanuel Macron, president of France, said this week that the NI protocol was “an existential question” for the EU and was a matter of “war and peace for Ireland”.
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Downing Street on Thursday responded: “When it comes to the protocol it’s vital we use measured and appropriate language given the sensitivities involved.”
Negotiations between UK Brexit minister Lord David Frost and Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, will continue on Friday. The Commission said that despite a lack of progress over the last six weeks, it would keep talking.
“We continue to work intensively with the UK to find joint solutions to tackle the practical problems people are facing in Northern Ireland. We are working around the clock,” a commission spokesperson said. “I am not going to create new deadlines.”
Many EU member states remain prepared for Frost to trigger Article 16 after Christmas. “We will be back to the threats in January. I don’t think the US pressure will make a difference,” said one EU diplomat.
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