There was no breakthrough at a “hugely disappointing” meeting between the European Commission and the British government on Wednesday over post-Brexit trade issues in Northern Ireland, the region’s first minister, Arlene Foster (pictured), said on Wednesday (24 February), write Ian Graham and Conor Humpries.
The British government is demanding concessions from the European Union to minimize disruption in trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that have emerged since Britain left the bloc’s trading orbit in January.
The European Union has said it will be pragmatic in seeking solutions, but has blamed the disruption on Britain’s decision to exit the European Union and has called for London to implement measures agreed.
Foster, who attended the online meeting between European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic and British minister Michael Gove, said there had been “no breakthrough”.
“I can’t say I am surprised given the attitude of the EU to the protocol,” she told Northern Irish broadcaster UTV.
The Northern Ireland Protocol of Britain’s EU withdrawal deal effectively left the British province of Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market, and put a customs border in the Irish Sea dividing the province from mainland Britain.
Foster, who has supported the British demands for concessions, said Sefcovic refused a short extension of certain post-Brexit grace periods. She did not say what exactly Britain had asked for.
Foster said she wanted the protocol to be replaced at least in part. “We are not asking for the impossible at all,” she said.
Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, a member of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein who also attended the meeting, was more positive.
“Both sides restated their commitment to finding practical solutions,” she said in a statement.
“I encouraged intensified efforts to find practical solutions to any problems within the framework of the Protocol, which is part of a legal-binding treaty and not going away, something which all parties must recognise,” she added.
EU and UK step up N. Ireland talks as EU continues legal action
The European Union said on Friday (16 April) that Britain should not change trading rules in Northern Ireland on its own and that the bloc would continue its legal case over unilateral British action in the province for as long as necessary, write Philip Blenkinsop and Michael Holden.
European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, who hosted UK negotiator David Frost for talks on Thursday evening, said only agreements by joint bodies established by the Brexit divorce deal could provide stability in Northern Ireland.
The British-ruled province has remained in the EU single market for goods since Brexit to ensure an open border with EU member Ireland and so requires checks on goods coming from other parts of the United Kingdom.
Britain in March unilaterally extended a grace period on certain checks to minimise supply disruption, a move Brussels said breached the Brexit divorce deal known as the Withdrawal Agreement and the specific protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Read more.
Sefcovic said in a statement on Friday there was no space for unilateral action. He said both sides had to agree on how to comply fully with the protocol, including "clear end-points, deadlines, milestones and the means to measure progress".
Frost said the British government was committed to working through joint bodies and that all solutions had to respect the Good Friday peace agreement "in all its dimensions" and to ensure minimal disruption to everyday lives in Northern Ireland.
Both agreed that Thursday's discussion took place in a constructive atmosphere, that talks needed to intensify and that they would jointly engage with business groups, civil society and others in Northern Ireland.
Frost said some "positive momentum" had been established.
"But a number of difficult issues remained and it was important to continue to discuss them," the British government said in a statement.
UK to respond to EU legal action over Northern Ireland by mid-May
Britain has agreed with the European Union that it will respond to the bloc’s legal action over how it has introduced new trading rules for Northern Ireland by mid-May, a spokeswoman for the government said on Wednesday (14 April), writes Elizabeth Piper.
The EU launched legal action against Britain in March for unilaterally changing trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that Brussels says are in breach of the Brexit divorce deal agreed with London last year.
Britain has denied that the move undermines the part of the Brexit deal that governs trade to the British province, saying it extended the grace period for checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland to ease their passage.
“In line with precedent that typically allows two months to respond to proceedings of this kind, we have agreed with the EU that we will respond to the Letter of Formal Notice by mid-May,” the spokeswoman said.
“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
Since leaving the EU’s single market at the end of last year, supermarkets in Northern Ireland have seen some shortages of food, and the British government has also delayed introducing checks on parcels and pets.
The difficulties stem from the terms of Britain’s withdrawal agreement, which leaves Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods and so requires checks on goods arriving there from other parts of the United Kingdom.
The two sides are due to meet on Thursday for talks on Northern Ireland at a meeting unlikely to reach a breakthrough but seen more as a staging post as London and Brussels try to find a way to ease differences over trade.
UK and EU edge closer to deal on Brexit checks in Northern Ireland
The UK is edging towards a new deal with the EU on Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland with the potential for easing border checks on certain goods. Officials in London and Brussels have been involved in intense “technical talks” in the past two weeks over the future checks on food, plants and parcels going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Downing Street’s official spokesman said the discussions had been constructive but that there were “still significant differences that need to be resolved”. The cabinet minister David Frost spoke by phone to the European commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Friday.
Sources said that while progress has been made on Northern Ireland, efforts did not involve removing checks on goods but instead were being concentrated on removing the series of “rolling deadlines” from the implementation of border controls.
One option is a new series of agreed milestones to be achieved involving agreement with business and civic society before each stage of the protocol is implemented. It would mirror public health experts’ “data not dates” advice to Boris Johnson regarding the easing of lockdown in England.Advertisementhttps://fe51aebfd36b7b7e45cc937da958003b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The talks began a fortnight ago after relations with the EU reached a low point, with Brussels launching legal action against the UK for taking a unilateral decision to extend the grace period for checks on supermarket goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
A cabinet source played down the row, claiming the dispute was a result of an unfortunate “mismatch in the communications last month”. This reflects revived urgent efforts to sort out the situation and a recognition in London that a joint approach is the way forward.
This is a change in policy from February when Michael Gove demanded the protocol be delayed until 2023.
Last week the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, told political parties in Belfast that the protocol would not be scrapped, despite demands by the Democratic Unionist party and others, and seven consecutive nights of violence in Northern Ireland.
There is urgent political need to calm the atmosphere in Northern Ireland but there is also recognition in London, Dublin and Brussels that any deal centring on the protocol will not address loyalist protests. Brexit checks down the Irish Sea have enraged loyalist communities who see the trade border as an assault on Northern Ireland’s place in the union of the UK.
EU sources have put it to UK officials that 90% of border checks could disappear if Britain agreed to align food standards with those of the bloc.
Ireland’s Europe minister, Thomas Byrne, told the BBC the situation was “delicate” but he said it would be “excellent” if a veterinary deal could be achieved as it would solve problems both in Northern Ireland and those facing food exporters in Great Britain.
But many see such a food agreement as unlikely because entering into such as deal would represent a complete U-turn for the UK, which opposed regulatory alignment to achieve a hard Brexit.
There have been suggestions that the border checks could be significantly eased if the UK adopted an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade. However, industry insiders say this would not address loyalist concerns as it still requires paperwork.
The agrifood sector is instead urging the EU and UK to take a pragmatic approach by extending the categories of goods deemed not at risk of crossing into the Republic of Ireland to include food.
The current talks are focusing on a new implementation programme outlined in a plan delivered by London to Brussels a fortnight ago. The EU has also requested real-time access to customs and border check data in Belfast ports.
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