By David Young and Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Progress is being made to hammer out a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol but difficulties remain, the EU’s chief negotiator has said.
European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said Brussels would “spare no effort” to reach a settlement with the UK on the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements.
As Mr Sefcovic made his comments in Brussels, the British government made clear that “significant work” was still required before an agreement could be reached.
The updates from both sides came amid intensifying speculation about an imminent deal to cut bureaucracy on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mr Sefcovic told a press conference in Brussels that “intensive scoping” to find joint solutions was continuing.
“The Commission and the UK government are working closely and constructively. Progress is being made but difficulties remain,” he said.
“President [Ursula] Von der Leyen has a trusting relationship with UK prime minister [Rishi] Sunak.
“And the same goes for my relationship with [British] foreign secretary James Cleverly, as well as Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.
“We agree that joint solutions are needed to respond to the real-life concerns of all communities in Northern Ireland.
“So, all in all, it is not an easy exercise, but it is certainly a necessary one, and the commission will spare no efforts to agree a joint way forward.”
A Downing Street spokesman declined to comment on the latest reports that a breakthrough had been reached on reducing checks on GB goods whose end destination was Northern Ireland, and differentiating between those and GB products due for onward transportation across the Irish border into the EU.
He added: “There is still significant work to be done and there will be further talks this week across all areas.”
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU in 2019 as a way to unlock the logjam over securing a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Designed as a means to keep the Border free-flowing, it moved regulatory and customs checks on goods to the Irish Sea, creating economic barriers on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Many unionists in the North are vehemently opposed to arrangements they claim have weakened the region’s place within the union.
The DUP is currently blocking the functioning of powersharing at Stormont and has made clear it will not allow devolution to return unless major changes to the protocol are delivered.
An agreement between the EU and UK would not guarantee the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, as the DUP may ultimately reject it and continue with its Stormont boycott.
The DUP has made clear that any deal would need to go further than just reducing red tape on trade.
The party says Northern Ireland can no longer remain subject to EU law or the oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
DUP MP Ian Paisley said any deal between the UK and the EU also had to deal with the role of the ECJ as the final arbiter in protocol-related trade disputes.
He told the BBC Nolan Show that the protocol must be replaced by arrangements that unionists can support.
“I believe that until we have this protocol replaced, the border removed in the Irish Sea, we have ourselves subject only to UK rule then there will be no powersharing,” he said.
“It is either protocol or powersharing. We can’t have both.
“The sooner we get the important issue addressed of the European courts, we can’t have an issue where Northern Ireland is answerable and accountable to something they have no say over.”