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UK and EU need space to focus on protocol negotiations, says Coveney

The UK’s chief negotiator has said the UK will safeguard its position “in other ways” if an agreement can’t be reached.

Coveney said he believes both sides are serious about trying to find solutions.
Coveney said he believes both sides are serious about trying to find solutions.
Image: PA

Updated Nov 21st 2021, 2:17 PM

THE UK AND the EU negotiating teams need space to continue working to solve the impasse on post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said.

The two sides have been in negotiations over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is designed to prevent checks along the Irish border.

Coveney said he believed that the UK and the EU were now “serious” about trying to find solutions to some of the problems caused by the protocol.

“I think both are serious in terms of their engagement now with each other, to try and find a way forward on practical things that can reduce the impact of the protocol on the ground,” he said.

“I think now is a time to try to give space to the negotiators.

I think a lot has happened this year. A lot of that has not been good in terms of building trust between the two sides.

“I think instead of focusing on who’s at fault there I think, for now, we should certainly be giving both Lord Frost and his team and vice president (Maros) Sefcovic and his team, the time and space to really get into the detail of negotiations.

“It’s encouraging that the negotiations this week, while they were difficult, I understand in Brussels, are continuing now next week in London.

“And of course, we all want to close this chapter if we can, particularly for the sake of Northern Ireland.”

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, the UK’s Chief negotiator David Frost said there was “momentum” for his government to “secure a solution based on consensus” following a meeting in Brussels.

The current problems with the protocol go to the heart of our territorial integrity, of what it means to be one country and one market,” he said. “They will not just disappear.

“I still hope the EU can show the ambition needed to fix the problem by agreement. If they can’t, of course we will have to safeguard our position in other ways.”

‘We just don’t know’

Asked on RTE’s The Week in Politics programme whether there was a danger that Brussels was being strung along by Frost, Coveney said that was a “danger”.

“It’s hard to know what’s happening right now, whether or not this is the British government giving some space for negotiation, with a view to then changing an approach in a negative direction in a few weeks time.

“We just don’t know. Because this is a very robust and difficult negotiation.

“But what we do know is that the two negotiating teams are in serious negotiations right now this week and again into next week. And we need to give that a fair wind if we can to give the best possible chance of agreement.”

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Coveney said that it was important to listen to the concerns of unionists. However, he reiterated that the EU would not be budging on the contentious issue of the role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing disputes around the protocol.

“I don’t see how the EU can outsource the arbitration on EU rules and regulations to a court outside of the EU,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s a realistic proposition.”

Speculation has continued for months that the UK Government is preparing to trigger Article 16, which would suspend elements of the post-Brexit arrangements in place in Northern Ireland.

However, there have been hopes on the EU side that the tone is shifting from the UK government.

European Commission vice-president Sefcovic said the EU was doing “everything possible” to avoid the triggering of Article 16.

He told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One: “We had a change of tone in the discussions over the last week, which I really appreciate.

Coveney said that the EU would respond “robustly” to any triggering of Article 16.

“That’s not what we want.”

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