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European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic. (File image) ABACA/PA Images
High hopes

‘Gaps remain’ with EU amid hopes of Northern Ireland Protocol breakthrough

A joint statement following talks between the EU and UK said that ‘scoping work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit’.

LAST UPDATE | 16 Jan 2023

UK FOREIGN SECRETARY James Cleverly and EU post-Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic have agreed to continue “scoping work” to solve the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

After a video conference today, they released a joint statement saying: “The two sides discussed the range of existing challenges over the last two years and the need to find solutions together to tackle comprehensively the real-life concerns of all communities in Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market and the integrity of the EU’s single market.

“They agreed that this scoping work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit, taking careful account of each other’s legitimate interests.”

Cleverly thanked Sefcovic for the video conference and expressed hope that a solution can be found “that works for the people of Northern Ireland and protects the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement”.

Meanwhile, Sefcovic tweeted that “scoping work for potential solutions will continue in a constructive, collaborative spirit, taking careful account of each other’s legitimate interests”.

However, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said he does not think the UK and EU are close to a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“It was clear from our conversations with James Cleverly last Wednesday when he visited Belfast that there are still substantial gaps between the two sides,” said the DUP leader.

“There is still a lot of ground to be covered. I don’t think we are close to a deal at this stage.

“Our position remains unchanged. We need to get an agreement that restores Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.”

Improved relations

Speculation had mounted in recent days that the two sides could be edging towards a breakthrough on the Northern Ireland Protocol, amid suggestions that cross-Channel relations have improved since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister.

The announcement last week that a deal had been reached on sharing real-time data on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland was seen as a step towards an overall resolution.

Labour said signs of progress were “promising” and urged Sunak to ignore the right wing of his party to secure a protocol pact with Brussels.

Talk of pushing through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, heavily criticised by the EU for the way it would unilaterally override parts of the treaty signed by former prime minister Boris Johnson, has grown quieter in recent months.

There has also been a flurry of activity in Northern Ireland, with Cleverly and Labour leader Keir Starmer’s Belfast appearances last week adding to speculation that a protocol announcement is moving nearer.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin also paid visits to Belfast last week.

Speaking to the PA news agency about today’s talks, a UK Government source said: “We’d all prefer a negotiated solution but significant gaps remain.

“It is the conversations with the commission that will either bring that about or not.

“Nobody should be under any illusions that this is complex and difficult but the desire to work together on a solution seems to be there.”

Alongside the EU-UK talks, Labour will send a delegation to Derry to meet business leaders and learn about how the protocol has affected Northern Ireland trade.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle and shadow Cabinet Office minister Baroness Chapman will visit Foyle Port, a gateway that handles two million tonnes of cargo a year.

Party officials said they were going to “see first-hand how red tape from the Conservatives’ deal and ongoing uncertainty are affecting trade”.

The protocol was agreed to in 2019 by Johnson as a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock.

In order to avoid a hard border in Ireland, customs and food safety checks and processes were moved to the Irish Sea, creating economic and administrative barriers on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The protocol is vehemently opposed by many unionists and the DUP is blocking the functioning of a devolved government in Stormont in protest at the arrangements.

- With reporting by Daragh Brophy 

Press Association
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