4th Dec 2023

No breakthrough, but EU-UK keep talking in sign of Brexit hope

  • EU Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič put his name to a joint statement with UK foreign secretary James Cleverly to 'scope work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit' (Photo: European Commission)
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UK foreign secretary James Cleverly and EU Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Monday (16 January) agreed to have more talks to resolve the dispute over post-Brexit trading rules governing Northern Ireland.

That in itself has given reason for optimism that after years of stalemate and souring relations, the two sides are progressing towards resolving key issues around trade arrangements and its oversight.

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  • Only the colour of the traffic markings indicates the border of the UK and the EU, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but Brexit has threatened to change that (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

According to a carefully-worded joint statement after a video conference by Cleverly, Šefčovič and Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, "they agreed that this scoping work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit".

The fact that they agreed to continue talking suggests that the two sides found enough common ground to see a reason for pursuing the secretive negotiations.

The aim is to agree on the controversial points of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which governs the region's trading arrangements, and which the UK agreed to under the 2019 EU-UK divorce deal, but then refuse to implement parts of.

That agreement included some trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain, in order to be able to close a possible loophole in the EU's single market.

The Democratic Unionist party (DUP), Northern Ireland's largest pro-UK political force, pulled out of a power-sharing government in Belfast over its objections to the protocol.

As a result, the region has been without a functioning government for nearly a year.

The EU and the UK would like to settle the outstanding issues by April, which marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

Success will also depend on UK prime minister Rishi Sunak ultimately having the political capital and skill to take on his own Conservative party's eurosceptic, hardline pro-Brexit wing.

Last Friday, Sunak has won the backing of opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, who pledged his support if there is a deal in the "coming weeks".

"The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult, which can never be satisfied, is now," he said on a visit to Northern Ireland.

Key issues

Last week, London and Brussels secured a "breakthrough" with an agreement that will allow the EU to share real-time UK data on trade flows across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

That has given way to hope that the two sides could agree on how to deal with goods going to Northern Ireland only, and those moving forward to the EU, one of the key outstanding trade hurdles.

Another is the issue of tariffs, where a deal could see British steel arriving in Northern Ireland exempted from EU tariffs.

A harder nut to crack could be the issue of taxation and state-aid rules, where the EU insists that Northern Ireland needs to follow the bloc's rules as it is essentially part of the EU's single market.

Reaching a deal on sanitary controls on agri-food products and livestock also remains difficult.

The UK no longer follows EU regulations, so physical checks must be carried out at the Irish Sea border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland — as the EU wants to make sure no disease gets through, but the UK wants get rid of checks.

Also politically difficult issues remain to be settled.

The role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has been sensitive for years — getting rid of the oversight of the EU's top court is a question of sovereignty for hardline Brexiteers. However, having the court's oversight over EU rules is also a red line for Brussels.

A new arbitration body with ECJ involvement could be a way out, but that might be a step too far both sides.


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