Suspending parts of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal will not resolve the dispute between the UK and EU, Sir Keir Starmer has warned.
The Labour leader went on to rule out rejoining the EU or “ripping up” the current deal, and instead argued for “sensible adjustments” to be made to improve what is in place.
Sir Keir also accused Boris Johnson of using Brexit tensions to distract voters from the sleaze row engulfing the Government at Westminster.
The UK Government has set the EU a December deadline to find a solution on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
The arrangement effectively keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, resulting in some checks for products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
Prime Minister Mr Johnson and Brexit minister Lord Frost have argued the EU’s interpretation of the deal has led to difficulties which have created the condition to justify the use of Article 16 of the protocol.
Such a move would effectively suspend elements of the arrangements.
Sir Keir, asked if he would support such a move by the Government, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I don’t think that triggering Article 16 will resolve the dispute in relation to the protocol in Northern Ireland.
“That isn’t in the interests of the communities in Northern Ireland or businesses in Northern Ireland. What is in their interests is resolving the issues.
“Because of the way the protocol was drafted, because of what the Prime Minister signed, it is perfectly true that there are checks from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – we want to reduce those.”
He added: “What I am saying is don’t rip up the protocol because that has that very important central purpose, which is to protect the no border in Northern Ireland.”
Sir Keir said he wants to see “both sides sitting down and resolving this”, adding: “There’s a little bit of me, Andrew, I am afraid that can’t help think that the Prime Minister is constantly trying to pick a fight on things like this so he hopes people don’t look elsewhere in the forest, which are things like the Owen Paterson affair.”
Sir Keir said he wanted to “make Brexit work” when asked if he was prepared to renegotiate the deal to mitigate the predicted impact on economic growth.
The Office for Budget Responsibility, a UK fiscal watchdog, has suggested leaving the EU would reduce the UK’s GDP by around 4%.
Gross domestic product, or GDP, is a measure of the size of the economy.
Sir Keir said: “It’s all very well saying get Brexit done, we’ve got to make Brexit work.
“In order to do that, we have got to deal with some of the gaps and weaknesses in the current arrangements.”
The Labour leader said he would do “whatever I could to make it easier for British firms to trade across the world, but particularly with the EU”.
He went on: “What I’m not talking about is rejoining the EU, what I’m not talking about is ripping up the current agreement and starting again – nobody wants to be in that place.”
The use of Article 16 could trigger a major trade dispute between the UK and EU, Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney warned.
“I believe that if the British government essentially refuses to implement the protocol, even with the extraordinary flexibilities that are now on offer, and instead looks to set it aside, then I think the EU will respond in a very serious way to that,” he told RTE Radio One.
The UK-EU trade deal is contingent on the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the protocol, he said.
“So if one is being set aside, there is a danger that the other will also be set aside by the EU.”
Mr Coveney suggested there was still some limited further room for movement from Brussels.
“I think the EU can go a little further on some of these issues and have indicated that their package is not the final word from the EU, but they want the UK Government to work with them in partnership to try to actually bottom out the remaining concerns.”