Talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom are making progress to solve a standoff over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements, the vice-president of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, said on Monday.
The two sides are thought to have closed in on a potential agreement related to the treatment of products destined for Northern Ireland from Britain to ease the flow of goods under the Northern Ireland protocol, which was designed to allow Britain to leave the EU without causing a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We are getting there,” Mr Šefčovič told journalists after he updated European affairs ministers from the 27 member states, saying a newly “trusting” relationship between EU leads and the new government of British prime minister Rishi Sunak had helped unlock progress.
“Progress is being made but difficulties remain,” he continued, saying that the focus was on “gradual, incremental work” to find a solution to the protocol issue, a point of contention between the UK and EU since the Brexit negotiations concluded.
Mr Šefčovič was asked about reports that the EU had accepted British proposals for so-called “red and green lanes” on goods into Northern Ireland, which would distinguish between products intended to remain in the jurisdiction and those destined for the broader single market.
“We’ve been proposing so-called express lanes for the goods which are to stay in Northern Ireland which have no risk at making it to the EU single market,” he said.
“We do not insist on the precise names, we just want to make sure that the system would work.”
Talks were taking place in a “very cordial atmosphere”, he said, noting that “the more and stronger safeguards we can get [for the single market], the more flexibility we can explore”.
Speaking after he was briefed by Mr Šefčovič on the progress along with other EU ministers in a Brussels meeting, Minister of State for European Affairs Peter Burke said he had stressed the importance of avoiding leaks about the talks to give them the best chance of success.
There was a “very, very strong appeal for discretion on his part and also confidentiality”, Mr Burke said. “This is a very serious time for the negotiations.
“Hopefully, working together, [the EU and UK teams] can come back to us with a deal in the future. But we do need to be careful. It’s a very significant time; the stakes are very high,” he said.
The issue of the protocol is highly politically sensitive in Westminster, with prime minister Sunak under pressure not to concede too much by the strongly pro-Brexit faction of his Conservative party.
Equally, both the EU and UK sides are keen that any eventual deal satisfies the concerns of unionists in Northern Ireland, and to avoid a rejection by the Democratic Unionist Party.
Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews, a member of the UK Contact Group in the European Parliament, said “strenuous efforts” had been made to engage with the DUP and wider unionist community during the talks.
“After months of secretive discussions, both sides have shown flexibility and common sense to find an agreement that will ensure peace, stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland, while preserving the integrity of the EU’s single market,” he said.
“This is a strong signal to all communities that both the EU and the UK are moving in the right direction in search of a comprehensive agreement.”
A spokesman for Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said: “We welcome the continued positive engagement between the EU and UK teams to find joint solutions to concerns raised over the implementation of the protocol.
“In the meantime, it is important that the people of Northern Ireland have a functioning executive regardless of negotiations concerning the protocol.”
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show, DUP MP Ian Paisley warned it was “either protocol or power-sharing, we can’t have both” and said the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the final arbiter in any protocol-related trade dispute must be addressed.
The Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group said it was “encouraged” by reports of progress between the EU and UK, and it remained “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement could be reached “that protects and supports Northern Ireland’s businesses and households”.