The UK’s Threat To Trigger Article 16 and Its Effect on Trade

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

The UK’s sudden threat to trigger Article 16 in the wake of its withdrawal from the EU is a contentious issue that could have a detrimental effect on UK trade, as it could mark the beginning of a trade war between the UK and EU. This is highly problematic considering the EU’s wide-reaching trade powers and its ability to isolate the UK from certain trade agreements with its member states.


To understand the level of this threat we need to analyse the article itself and the reasons why it is causing so much upset in Parliament. It appears that trade is the central focus of this argument, however, Parliament may try to use this as a way of re-establishing its supremacy post Brexit.


First, Article 16 is a clause contained within the Northern Ireland Protocol which can only be invoked by the UK or EU if they believe that their original agreement has caused “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.” [1] The UK’s reasoning lies centrally in the trade difficulties it has caused between itself and Northern Ireland. The man at the forefront of all this is Brexit Minister, David Frost.


Frost is arguing that the Article 16 conditions have been met due to the obstruction of the flow of trade between the UK and Northern Ireland, which has arisen due to the EU’s increased thorough and physical checks on products as a

result of smuggling concerns, slowing down the process dramatically. Frost, in a recent statement made to the House of Lords, described how “this government will always proceed in the best interests of Northern Ireland and indeed, the whole of the country. That means, one way or another, working towards a balanced agreement in Northern Ireland that supports the Belfast/Good Friday agreement rather than undermining it.” [2] This statement highlights the UK government’s unwillingness to back down to the EU when it comes to trade, however, this may not be its only motive in doing so.


Little has been said about the Conservative Party’s ulterior motives for triggering Article 16, such as that it will “use the breakdown of talks to drive through domestic legislation to dump the role of the European Court of Justice in the arbitration process.” [3] This correlates with the idea that this has become another sly attempt from Parliament to regain supremacy from the EU, which still has a hold over certain areas such as domestic law.


To add to this idea that England’s only purpose for triggering Article 16 is one of self-interest and power, their actions have been condemned by Ursula von der Leyen. With an apparent agreement with Joe Biden, she stated: “I think that President Biden and I will share the assessment that it is important for peace and stability on the island of Ireland to keep the withdrawal agreement and stick to the protocol.” [4]


Ultimately, these ideas point to the conclusion that the UK’s triggering of Article 16 will most likely bring about more harm than good as its main objective is the retention of trading power and the attempt to regain some power withheld by the EU. The only outcome that is of major concern is that if the EU does decide to cut off certain trading routes to the UK then we might struggle to get our fateful Christmas presents in time!

[1] Protocol on Northern Ireland/Ireland, Article 16 S1.

[2] Lord Frost, Statement given to the House of Lords, 10 November 2021.

[3] Lisa O’Carroll, ‘Will the UK trigger Article 16 – and what will happen if it does?’ (5 November 2021) < https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/05/will-the-uk-trigger-article-16-and-what-will-happen-if-it-does>.

[4] Daniel Boffey and Peter Walker, ‘Joe Biden supports EU position on Northern Ireland, says Von der Leyen’ (10 Nov 2021) < https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/10/frost-repeats-threat-to-trigger-article-16-but-says-agreement-is-possible>.

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