Britain and the European Union have agreed to intensify talks over the Northern Ireland protocol after “a change in tone” from Brexit minister David Frost, who has stepped back from triggering Article 16.
“We can and must arrive at the agreed solution that Northern Ireland truly deserves. That is also why I raised forcefully that we need to make serious headway in the course of next week. This is particularly important as regards the issue of medicines. An uninterrupted long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is the protocol-related issue on everyone’s mind in Northern Ireland,” Mr Sefcovic said after meeting Lord Frost in London.
“I stand by my commitment to do whatever it takes to address this issue in line with what industry tells us. I prefer to have a joint solution with the UK Government but if we are to amend our own EU legislation – something we are committed to do – we need to find this solution quickly. We will therefore intensify our talks next week.”
Both sides agree that the medicines issue is crucial but the EU is resisting Britain’s call for it to be removed from the scope of the protocol, promising to amend European rules instead.
Lord Frost said the talks had been constructive but added that significant gaps remained between the two sides. “Lord Frost also underlined the need to address the full range of issues the UK had identified in the course of discussions, if a comprehensive and durable solution was to be found that supported the Belfast Agreement and was in the best interests of Northern Ireland,” a British government spokesperson said.
“In this context, although talks had so far been conducted in a constructive spirit, Lord Frost underlined that in order to make progress, it was important to bring new energy and impetus to discussions. Accordingly, intensified talks will take place between teams in Brussels next week on all issues, giving particular attention to medicines and customs issues.”
Lord Frost said that “Article 16 safeguards” were a legitimate part of the protocol’s provisions but he did not threaten to use it to suspend parts of the protocol.
Mr Sefcovic said he acknowledged and welcomed “the change in tone of discussion with David Frost”, adding that he hoped it would lead to tangible results for the people of Northern Ireland.
The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson backed the use of Article 16 if the negotiations did not lead to a successful outcome, saying that if they did not achieve a solution his party and the UK government could support then it would be “right” to trigger the mechanism.
Meanwhile, prime minister Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings on Friday warned against triggering Article 16, a move he said would damage Britain’s economy and its relations with allies.
Writing in his Substack blog, Mr Cummings said Britain should bank the EU’s concessions on the protocol and take a flexible approach to its implementation. “We partly stick to the deal, partly ‘bend’ it on the ground but without making a fuss. Like the Greeks do with EU laws every day. And we wait,” he wrote.
“If Brussels and France want to blow everything up because it’s messy, and they want to make the argument that total, Cartesian, ECJ standards are more important than peace, let them. I think that most in Europe are happy to focus elsewhere provided No 10 does not force them to pay attention.”