Northern Ireland urgently needs stability in its post-Brexit arrangements and for Britain to come to an agreement with the European Union on how to ease their implementation, the European Commission has said.
EU Brexit point man and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic met his British counterpart David Frost following a perceived thaw in relations as the London government appeared to step back from using the sensitive Article 16 clause of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Sefcovic said the change in tone was welcome but that concrete progress needed to be made swiftly, while Lord Frost warned that Article 16 was still on the table.
“It is essential that the recent change in tone now leads to joint tangible solutions in the framework of the protocol,” Mr Sefcovic said in a statement, pointing to the need for a deal to ensure the transit of medical supplies in particular.
“There is a genuine urgency. We welcome the progress this week. We now need to press on and get this crucial issue across the line. This is a real test of political goodwill.”
The EU maintains that a package of proposals it has set out to ease the implementation of the protocol, designed to avoid the need for a hard border across the island after Brexit, would halve customs formalities and identity and physical checks by 80 per cent.
The British side has insisted that more is needed, however.
In a statement after the talks, Lord Frost said that “significant gaps remain across most issues”.
“Looking forward, the United Kingdom’s preference remains to secure a solution based on consensus,” he said. “But any such solution must constitute a significant change from the current situation, materially ease practical problems on the ground, and safeguard political, economic and societal stability in Northern Ireland.
“If no such solution can be found, we remain prepared to use the safeguard provisions under Article 16.”
The British government has previously insisted that any deal will require the removal of the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in overseeing the protocol, something that the EU side has ruled out, as it is a requirement for Northern Ireland to participate in the single market.
As the two sides remain far apart on the question, they have been focused on solving smaller practical issues, leaving the question of the ECJ until last to see if solving everything else can help surmount it.
Technical talks between the sides, focused on customs arrangements and ways to ensure a seamless flow of medicines into Northern Ireland, have been taking place this week.
In an address prior to Friday’s talks, Mr Sefcovic warned that the use of Article 16 by the British government would affect the overall trade agreement with the UK. This, he said, was because the Withdrawal Agreement, which the protocol is part of, and the EU-UK trade deal are interwoven.
“The two agreements are intrinsically linked, one cannot exist without the other,” Mr Sefcovic said. “Settling the divorce has always been and remains a precondition for our future relationship.”
Officials believe the triggering of Article 16 would have a serious impact on the Irish economy, and have warned that it would be a signal of a serious deterioration in EU-UK relations.
“Our solutions can become reality if the UK plays its part,” Mr Sefcovic said. “We need the UK government to reciprocate the significant move the EU has made.”