With a new lead negotiator in charge, the British government has relaunched talks with the European Union on Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status, calling for Brussels to be “pragmatic” after months of deadlock.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — who has taken over the political hot potato since the sudden resignation of former Brexit minister David Frost in December — is hosting European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic until Friday.
Talks are taking place at the foreign secretary’s country residence at Chevening House, near London. The menu for Thursday evening’s dinner is suitably British: Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb, and for dessert a pie made with English apples from Kent.
But Northern Ireland is at the centre of attention as both sides sit down for talks. At stake, beyond the details of the Brexit protocol dealing with trading arrangements, is safeguarding peace in the UK territory and avoiding a trade war between London and Brussels.
There are hopes in EU circles that progress can be made with Truss in charge on the UK side, following the departure of the unpopular Frost who was widely considered to be too ideological and intransigent.
The British government wants a complete overhaul of the treaty, agreed by Boris Johnson with the EU as part of the legally-binding Brexit divorce deal — he says in haste amid the rush in late 2019 to take the UK out of the bloc.
Brussels — supported by national EU governments — has refused a renegotiation, but put forward detailed proposals last October designed to ease the impact of the new arrangements which have disrupted trade between Northern Ireland and Britain.
‘Myriad and manifest’ problems
In a statement released ahead of the talks, Liz Truss called for “a pragmatic approach from the EU”, saying she would propose “practical, reasonable solutions” that ensured peace in Northern Ireland and the integrity of the UK and the EU.
But in an article for the pro-Brexit Sunday Telegraph last weekend, she repeated the UK government’s threat to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, suspending at least part of the accord.
The mechanism allows either the UK or the EU to take safeguard measures unilaterally if they believe it has brought “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” or “diversion of trade”.
In her article, Truss complained of “myriad and manifest” problems, with red tape involving customs declarations for parcels sent from Britain to Northern Ireland, families unable to bring pets across “without costly paperwork and unnecessary veterinary treatments”, and said the Jewish community had “struggled to get kosher food”.
“Northern Ireland is not in the Single Market and shouldn’t be treated as if it is,” she said, adding that the UK’s proposals meant “no checks or documentation for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and staying there”, accepting that there would be formalities for good going on to the Irish Republic.
The foreign secretary also reiterated the UK demand “to end the role of the European Court of Justice as the final arbiter of disputes”.
Hope for ‘new momentum’
The EU Ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, said last weekend that triggering Article 16 would not help solve problems created by Brexit. “Now we have the protocol, which is international law, British law, EU law. We want to implement it with pragmatism, with a certain degree of flexibility,” he told Sky News on Sunday.
Vale de Almeida, who is taking part in Thursday’s talks, said he hoped “new momentum” would be injected into negotiations with Truss leading them.
A European Commission spokesman said Brussels was determined to find “long-term solutions” to ensure stability for the people of Northern Ireland. The EU says its proposals would lead to a large reduction in checks on goods sent from Britain to Northern Ireland.
In December it proposed measures aimed at safeguarding the continued long-term supply of medicines from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Ireland’s representative in the Commission, Mairead McGuinness, has said a solution to the protocol row must be found before the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May. She told Irish radio last weekend she hoped that Liz Truss would “bring some pragmatism” to the talks.
Northern Ireland’s largest party, the unionist DUP, has paused its threat to collapse the powersharing institutions to give the latest talks a chance to succeed.
In force since January 2021 when the post-Brexit transition period ended, the protocol keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU’s customs territory and single market for goods. This ensures an open land border with the Irish Republic to the south, as guaranteed by the 1998 “Good Friday” agreement which ended three decades of bloody sectarian conflict.
But the consequent “Irish Sea” border has brought red tape and checks on goods sent from Britain, disrupting supplies. This has infuriated unionists, who oppose Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK.