Britain is “confident” that it can make progress in Brexit talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol without triggering Article 16, Michael Gove said on Friday.
The Cabinet minister’s comments will be welcomed in Brussels, which has warned the UK it could cancel the Brexit trade deal if Britain invokes the clause.
Lord Frost has repeatedly threatened to use Article 16 to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol unless real progress is made in the talks.
The Telegraph understands that Mr Gove’s optimism is not shared by everyone involved in negotiations with Brussels.
Lord Frost warned on Friday that Article 16 remained on the table. However, after talks in Brussels, the Brexit minister said negotiations had been “intensive and constructive” and could build momentum.
Speaking at the British Irish Council summit in Cardiff, Mr Gove said: “Lord Frost has signalled that while, of course, it’s always possible that Article 16 may require to be invoked, we’re confident that we’ll be able to make progress without it.”
In a speech in Dublin, Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president, said he had noticed “a recent change of tone from the UK Government, and we hope that actions will follow words.”
Lord Frost said “the United Kingdom’s preference remains to secure a solution based on consensus”, adding: “If no such solution can be found, we remain prepared to use the safeguard provisions under Article 16, which are a legitimate recourse under the protocol.”
But he suggested the UK would match the EU’s efforts to find a deal after Micheál Martin, the Irish Prime Minister, said the bloc had “serious intent” to find an agreement.
“We should all direct our energies now, over the next while, to comprehensively, and in an enduring way, resolving those issues [with the protocol],” Mr Martin said on Friday.
Lord Frost said: “The Taoiseach [Mr Martin] said that the EU has serious intent to resolve the difficulties that we’re facing. I think that’s a very good thing that we take very seriously.”
Mr Sefcovic last week suggested a deal on medicines, understood to be close, could pave the way for a series of breakthroughs in other areas of the protocol talks.
Northern Ireland continues to follow EU rules in some areas – including medicines – under the terms of the protocol, which prevents a hard Irish border. But those rules threaten the supply of medicines from Britain to Northern Ireland once grace periods in the protocol expire at the end of the year unless a deal is reached.
“On medicines, there has been progress but agreement has not been reached,” Lord Frost said. “Any acceptable solution needs to ensure that medicines are available at the same time and on the same basis across the whole of the UK.”
Mr Sefcovic said there was “genuine urgency” to secure “the uninterrupted long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”.
“We welcome the progress this week. We now need to press on and get this crucial issue across the line. This is a real test of political goodwill,” he added. “The EU, for its part, is confident that our proposed solution, addressing all concerns raised by industry, would bring much needed clarity and foster a positive political momentum.”
Mr Sefcovic said new measures on the protocol would create an “express line” on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, resulting in a “win-win situation” for all.
He said the bloc would offer to permanently slash customs paperwork by 50 per cent, along with the removal of up to 80 per cent of checks. Negotiations continue next week, and Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic meet in London next Friday.