The UK and EU on Friday agreed to intensify talks to try to reach a compromise on contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that have soured relations between the two sides.
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and European Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic issued a joint statement praising the “cordial atmosphere” after their first face to face talks at her grace and favour mansion at Chevening in Kent.
The tone was very different to last year. Lord David Frost, the UK Brexit negotiator who resigned in December, often focused on differences between the two sides and made regular threats to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU that governs trade between Great Britain and the region.
The UK is demanding a sweeping overhaul of the protocol on the grounds it is impeding the flow of goods to Northern Ireland as well as causing political unrest in the region.
Truss and Sefcovic said UK and EU officials would hold “intensified talks” next week, with the British foreign secretary and European Brexit commissioner then meeting on January 24.
“What I want is a negotiated solution, I think there is a deal to be done,” said Truss, who assumed responsibility for UK negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol after Frost’s resignation. “We have had constructive talks.”
Truss has previously said she could trigger Article 16 of the protocol to suspend several of its provisions, but she has also placed more emphasis than Frost on reaching a compromise with the EU.
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“Clearly, if we don’t make sufficient progress, we will have to look at the alternatives but my absolute desire is to get a deal that works for people,” she added.
People close to the talks between Truss and Sefcovic said officials did not engage in technical level discussions on the substantial issues at stake. Sefcovic said on Twitter: “Now it’s time to start taking issues off the table.”
Under the UK withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland stayed in the EU single market for goods to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and preserve the peace process enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The Northern Ireland protocol instead placed a border in the Irish Sea, and requires customs and regulatory checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
To try to strike a compromise on the protocol, the European Commission in October proposed to cut up to 80 per cent of checks on animal and plant-based products, and halve the customs paperwork.
But the UK has said it should be as easy to send something from Liverpool to Belfast as Liverpool to Birmingham.
EU officials said the current talks involving Truss and Sefcovic represented a step forward after the process had stalled under Frost.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, called for a compromise to be reached on the Northern Ireland protocol soon, well ahead of the dissolution of the region’s devolved assembly in March and elections scheduled for May 5.
“My understanding is that both sides really simply outlined their positions,” he told RTÉ radio. “There wasn’t any real progress on trying to find landing zones at this stage, but I don’t think that was the purpose of this meeting.”
He added: “We would like to have, if possible, these issues resolved by the end of February.”
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