Liz Truss has warned Brussels that she will not drop Lord Frost’s demand of a diminished role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Just 48 hours after taking over as Britain’s Brexit negotiator, the Foreign Secretary told Maros Sefcovic, her EU counterpart, that triggering Article 16 remained an option if the bloc failed to compromise.
"The UK position has not changed," said Ms Truss after a phone call with Mr Sefcovic on Tuesday. "We need goods to flow freely between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, end the role of the ECJ as the final arbiter of disputes between us, and resolve other issues.
"We must pick up the pace on talks in the New Year. Our preference remains to reach an agreed solution. If this does not happen, we remain prepared to trigger Article 16 safeguards to deal with the very real problems faced in Northern Ireland and to protect the Belfast Agreement in all its dimensions."
Ms Truss’s message will be seen as a blow in Brussels, where many had believed her taking over from Lord Frost as the minister tasked with overseeing Brexit would soften Britain’s position.
‘The EU’s position is known. Our goal: stability and predictability’
The two sides are at loggerheads over the ECJ’s role in overseeing the Northern Ireland Protocol. Britain has formally dropped its demand that the Luxembourg court should have no legal role over enforcement of the post-Brexit arrangements, but Brussels has ruled out any talks over EU judges altogether.
Mr Sefcovic said: "The EU’s position is known. Our goal: stability and predictability. I’m committed to continue working towards a conclusive understanding with the UK on practical solutions for Northern Ireland stakeholders."
A source said Ms Truss had "sent a clear message to the EU" similar to those of Margret Thatcher, who refused to climb down in her negotiations with Brussels.
The Foreign Secretary has modelled herself on Mrs Thatcher, her political hero, most recently being pictured riding in a tank 35 years after the former prime minister posed for a similar photograph.
Allies of Ms Truss said she was keen to get off to a quick start in her new role and would reopen formal talks over the protocol, which has led to trade frictions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, in the new year.
Alongside her deputy Chris Heaton-Harris, the newly appointed Europe minister, she wants to maintain the hard-nosed approach to negotiations adopted by Lord Frost, who last week resigned because of concerns over the Government’s direction.
‘Protocol negotiations are in safe hands with Liz’
"Protocol negotiations are in safe hands with Liz – she’ll do a great job," a source told The Telegraph. "Her outlook and ideology are similar to Lord Frost, so don’t expect any radical early changes in approach, although she’ll of course do it her way.
"Liz is a really tough negotiator, knows trade inside out and will fight hard for Britain and not roll over."
She will push for a Swiss-style arbitration system that would remove the EU’s ability to immediately escalate disputes to the ECJ.
If applied to the protocol, a panel would first attempt to resolve disputes over issues such as food safety before European judges are given a say on matters of EU law as it is applied in Northern Ireland.
Under the current system, the EU can essentially bring the UK before its judges if it fails to implement the bloc’s laws properly in the province.
The threat to trigger Article 16, which would unilaterally suspend parts of the Brexit treaty, remains on the table if a solution is not reached in the coming months. Talks are expected to continue for up to two months into next year, with sources suggesting the end of February is now the cut-off point for an agreement.
Industry leaders and academics in Northern Ireland have said they hoped Ms Truss’s appointment would lead to a deal.
"Given Truss’s focus as International Trade Secretary and as Foreign Secretary has been getting deals and building bridges, I think there is hope for renewed momentum in the UK-EU talks over the Protocol in the new year," Prof Katy Hayward, of Queen’s University Belfast, said.
Stephen Kelly, of Manufacturing NI, said: "Perhaps this is a chance for a change of tone and negotiating approach which is more likely to lead to the success which firms and families need."