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UK government plays down Joe Biden steel tariffs Brexit row

Downing Street today scrambled to play down claims that Joe Biden is delaying lifting tariffs on UK steel and aluminium imports because of Brexit concerns. 

The US administration is concerned that Britain's repeated threats to tear up post-Brexit border checks in Northern Ireland could endanger the peace process.

The UK has said it is willing to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to suspend some of the rules unless the EU gives more ground in talks designed to reduce friction at the border. 

The Financial Times reported it had seen a communication in which a US commerce official said the talks on easing tariffs could not go ahead due to the Brexit fears. 

However, Boris Johnson's official spokesman insisted this afternoon that the two issues are not linked. 

Downing Street today scrambled to play down claims that Joe Biden is delaying lifting tariffs on UK steel and aluminium imports because of Brexit concerns

Boris Johnson's official spokesman insisted this afternoon that the two issues are not linked

The spokesman told reporters: 'It is important not to conflate those two issues. They are two separate points.

'On the steel tariffs, we are working quite closely with the Biden administration. 

'It is encouraging that they are taking steps to de-escalate the issue and we are very focused on agreeing a resolution that removes damaging tariffs, which will benefit businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

'On the protocol, the US shares our deep commitment to the Belfast Agreement and the peace process.

'The actions that we are taking are to protect the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland's place in the UK single market.'

The Northern Ireland Protocol was negotiated as part of the Brexit deal to avoid a hard border with Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.

But unionists have been pressuring for it to be scrapped because of the trade barriers it has created on products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain. 

The UK and the EU have been locked in talks for months as they try to smooth the implementation of the protocol. 

In the Commons, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt said the International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan will be discussing the tariffs issue with her US counterparts next week.

'These are two entirely separate issues,' Ms Mordaunt said. 'We don't do ourselves any favours if we perpetuate these false narratives.'

A 25 per cent tariff on steel and 10 per cent tariff on aluminium were originally imposed by the Trump administration as part of a dispute with the EU.

However, while Brussels and Washington reached an agreement in October to suspend the tariffs, British steel and aluminium exporters are still subject to the levies.

Retaliatory UK duties on US bourbon whiskey and other products also remain in place.