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EU and UK ‘not worlds apart’ on Northern Ireland Brexit row, senior EU official says

LONDON — The EU and U.K.’s positions on post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland “are not worlds apart,” according to a senior EU official.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič told parliamentarians in London Monday that checks on goods being shipped into Northern Ireland from Great Britain could become “effectively invisible” if the U.K. accepts the EU’s proposals — and stressed that Brussels is not seeking a “political victory” over London in the long-running row.

Šefčovič, who leads on the bloc’s relationship with Britain, told the second meeting of the EU-U.K. Parliamentary Partnership Assembly (PPA) in Westminster: “I believe that our respective positions are not worlds apart. This is truly the moment to abandon the recourse to unilateral action, such as the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill set to disapply the core elements of the protocol.”

That controversial U.K. legislation, which would allow ministers to ignore parts of a painstakingly-negotiated arrangement they argue is hindering power-sharing in Northern Ireland and causing burdens for business, is currently making its way through the British parliament.

Šefčovič said the looming 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday peace agreement in April “should galvanize us into resolute action during what I see as a clear window of opportunity,” and adding that a deal on the outstanding issues with the protocol could be reached “within a couple of weeks” — if there is political will in London.

However, a spokesperson for Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made clear Downing Street is “not working to a set timeline” on the protocol talks.

Sunak and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met Monday on the margins of the 2022 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt, and agreed on the need to solve the long-running row, according to readouts provided by both sides.

The U.K. leader “reiterated the need to find solutions to the very real problems [the protocol] had created on the ground in Northern Ireland,” according to a Downing Street readout, using wording almost identical to the language frequently used by Šefčovič.

However, an EU diplomat said that although the mood music coming from London remains positive, Brussels is still waiting for the U.K. to make a move in protocol discussions. Technical talks continue virtually, but the calendar for another round of in-person discussions is yet to be agreed.

The U.K. parliament is meanwhile scrutinizing a bill giving the British government huge power to ditch thousands of EU rules that were automatically added to the U.K. statute book after Brexit. But Šefčovič warned “more divergence will carry even more costs” for businesses and “will deepen the barriers to trade” between the two territories “in times of severe economic strains.”

Electricity trading

Speaking at the same Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, the U.K.’s Europe Minister Leo Docherty countered that the Northern Ireland protocol had “deprived” people in the region “of equal treatment” with the rest of the U.K. on matters such as VAT and state subsidies.

And he urged the Commission to “accelerate” joint work on a new electricity trading system, something both sides agreed in the post-Brexit trade deal to put in place by the end of this year, but which is now unlikely to be ready in time.

While London and Brussels have been working together to boost EU gas storage ahead of the winter, Docherty warned that a new electricity trading system is urgently needed amid the “common challenge” of “high energy prices, insecure supply and the need to move away from Russian hydrocarbons.”

The PPA was set up under the EU-U.K. Trade and Cooperation Agreement as a way to keep lines of communication open between U.K. and EU lawmakers. It will make its first recommendation on how to improve the EU-U.K. relationship to senior officials in the EU-U.K. Partnership Council this week, on the topic of energy security.

Nathalie Loiseau, chair of the European Parliament delegation taking part in the PPA, told POLITICO Monday that the energy challenge this winter will show if there’s “political will” in London to tackle tricky issues in the relationship.

Brexit had, she said, led to a “deficit of trust” between the EU and the U.K. which made discussions “slow and bumpy.”

“We are ready for a fresh start on the European side,” she added.

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