EU and UK to push for protocol solutions as fears over Russia change mood

Sides affirm desire for positive relationship and co-operation on ‘common challenges’

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and European Commission vice-president Marcos Sefcovic before to their bilateral meeting in Brussels. Photograph: John Thys/AFP via Getty

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and European Commission vice-president Marcos Sefcovic before to their bilateral meeting in Brussels. Photograph: John Thys/AFP via Getty

 

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic have agreed to hold further talks on the Northern Ireland protocol next week after they failed to make a breakthrough at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.

Both sides stressed the importance of improving the British-EU relationship in the light of shared global challenges, an apparent reference to the dispute with Russia over Ukraine.

“The meeting took place in a constructive atmosphere with the aim to advance the talks,” they said in a joint statement. “They agreed that officials would meet again this week, with the principals taking stock at political level next week. They also agreed that the EU-UK joint committee would meet in the course of February.

“They reaffirmed their shared desire for a positive EU-UK relationship underpinned by our shared belief in freedom and democracy and co-operation on common global challenges.”

Mr Sefcovic said afterwards that he was “not in the business of setting artificial deadlines” but promised to act with a sense of urgency to reach agreement. He said the EU remained steadfast in its efforts to facilitate the implementation of the protocol on the ground while safeguarding the integrity of the EU’s single market.

“Ultimately it is about ensuring stability, predictability and prosperity in Northern Ireland, bearing in mind that the protocol represents the one and only solution found jointly in light of Brexit to protect the gains of the peace process and avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland,” he said.

“After my first meeting with [Ms] Truss, I said we needed to start taking things off the table. To get to that point, I believe we must stay laser-focused on practical challenges raised by Northern Irish stakeholders, mirrored in EU-proposed solutions. In this context, I find it particularly important that our teams dive into the questions related to the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

Customs deal

Britain has called for a thorough revision of the protocol to remove checks and procedures for all goods from Britain that are destined to remain in Northern Ireland. Mr Sefcovic said the EU had proposed an extensive reduction of formalities “unmatched for any other third country” in areas like customs and the movement of sanitary- and phytosanitary goods.

“If political goodwill is maintained, our discussions could lead to a timely agreement on durable solutions that would immediately and significantly help operators on the ground. At the same time, I have remained clear that we need safeguards to protect the EU single market,” he said.

“In a couple of days, two years will pass, since Brexit and I continue to believe that it is our shared interest to rebuild trust and work in close partnership, especially in a world where democracy increasingly finds itself under pressure from many sides. For my part, I will do my utmost.”

DUP reaction

Speaking after the talks, the DUP leader warned the UK government he is not prepared to be “strung out for weeks” waiting for an assurance that it will act over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Jeffrey Donaldson said the UK government needs to make clear it will move to suspend parts of the protocol – by triggering its article 16 mechanism – if a negotiated deal with the EU is not reached.

Mr Donaldson suggested his party would follow through with its threat to withdraw Ministers from Stormont if progress is not made on this.

However, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the issues related to the protocol were a direct consequence of the “hard Brexit” advocated by the DUP.

“As we speak here today there are talks ongoing between the EU side and the British government and I hope, I really hope that there’s momentum built upon,” she said.

“What we want to find is a way forward that allows, within the framework of the protocol, all these issues to be ironed out.” Additional reporting: PA