Significant differences remain between Britain and the European Union on how to resolve a standoff over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements, the UK’s Brexit chief has said on arrival in Brussels.
“I wouldn’t expect any breakthroughs on anything today, but there are some issues that we’re making better progress on than others,” Brexit minister David Frost said ahead of his meeting with EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic at the European Commission.
“There are still really significant gaps between us.”
Frost reiterated a warning that the British government was prepared to use the sensitive Article 16 clause to unilaterally suspend aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol if the EU does not agree to changes.
“Obviously our preference is to see if we can find a negotiated way through this problem. If we can’t, Article 16 remains on the table,” Frost told journalists. “There are a large number of issues that need to be fixed if we are going to resolve this problem.”
Technical talks between both sides, which have been ongoing during the week, focused on customs arrangements and ways to ensure a seamless flow of medicines into Northern Ireland.
Until recently, the EU and Irish leadership believed Britain was edging closer towards using Article 16, something they warned would have a dramatic effect on relations and overall trade.
But the tone has recently softened from London, European Commission vice president and Brexit point man Maros Sefcovic said ahead of the Brussels talks.
“I noticed and welcome a recent change of tone from the UK government, and we hope that actions will follow the words,” he told a conference of the DCU Brexit Institute prior to meeting with Frost.
‘Completely new model’
Mr Sefcovic told the online conference that the EU made proposals last month for “a unique and completely new model” for how goods can be moved from Britain to Northern Ireland under the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
“Right now, we need the UK government to reciprocate the significant move the EU has made,” he said.
The UK is pushing for changes to the 2019 agreement on Northern Ireland, the special arrangements designed to stop Brexit creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Unionists argue that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s position in the UK by creating a trade barrier on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Mr Sefcovic said that Brussels was focused on “practical solutions” that can deliver “a real difference for people and businesses in Northern Ireland and strengthen the opportunities”.
The EU’s proposals would reduce up to 80 per cent of the health and sanitation checks and lead to a 50 per cent “permanent reduction” in the existing paperwork on customs, he said.
“These measures would create a type of express lane, which would substantially facilitate trade between all parties – a win-win situation,” he said.
He stressed again the EU would not renegotiate the protocol because this would risk stability in Northern Ireland and was unnecessary because solutions are available within the protocol.
Mr Sefcovic tied the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement directly to the post-Brexit EU-UK trade agreement, saying that the “divorce” was “a precondition” for the future trade agreement.
“The two agreements are intrinsically linked; one cannot exist without the other,” he said.
He told the conference that the EU would keep in touch with stakeholders in Northern Ireland during the discussion with the UK “because we need to keep our finger on the pulse”.
The EU remained “constructive, firm and responsible” in its discussion with the UK, he said.