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LONDON — The EU and the U.K. said they need more time to continue “scoping” for fixes to their long-running row over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly met via videoconference Monday to discuss “the range of existing challenges over the last two years and the need to find solutions together to tackle comprehensively the real-life concerns of all communities in Northern Ireland,” they said in a joint statement.
Officials had hoped the scoping exercise, launched last Monday, could be finalized by today, and lead the way to so-called tunnel discussions — the last part of intensified talks to hammer out a deal on the protocol.
Instead, they agreed that the search for a resolution to the row “should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit, taking careful account of each other’s legitimate interests,” the joint statement said.
Brussels and London have long been at loggerheads over the Northern Ireland protocol, the piece of the post-Brexit divorce deal which keeps Northern Ireland — part of the U.K. — subject to EU sanitary and regulatory standards on goods.
The arrangement means goods flow unimpeded across the politically sensitive Irish land border, but checks are required on goods imported into Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain. Anger at those rules among British unionists in Northern Ireland has prompted the collapse of the region’s power-sharing government.
Earlier Monday, No. 10 Downing Street appeared to downplay hopes of an imminent breakthrough, saying gaps remained between London and Brussels.
“They will continue to look at any progress that’s being made,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said when asked about the meeting.
“But as we’ve said on a number of occasions, there are still gaps in our position that need to be resolved in order to address the full range of problems created by the protocol.”
Senior government officials in Belfast and Dublin pointed to the brevity of Monday’s joint statement, and its broadly positive tone, as reflecting the constructiveness and seriousness of the ongoing London-Brussels dialogue.
They said it set the stage for the U.K.’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to postpone, once again, his often-threatened “deadline” for Northern Ireland’s divided politicians to form a new cross-community government in line with the region’s 1998 peace accord. An announcement by Heaton-Harris to this effect is expected later this week.
“This is very much a ‘watch this space’ kind of announcement. The language is entirely positive and delivered in unison with the U.K. The lack of detail simply shows that every outstanding issue is still in discussion, but it’s clearly a positive environment, in contrast to this time last year,” a Dublin government official said.
The same official noted that, when they spoke by telephone last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had told Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar that the EU intended to keep information on the state of negotiations to a bare minimum until agreement can be reached.
Resolving the row over Northern Ireland’s Brexit rules poses an early diplomatic and political test for Sunak, who could face opposition from staunch Brexiteers in his own party to an agreement.
EU and U.K. negotiators have made progress in the area of customs, and are close to finalizing a solution to a long-standing legal row over Tariff Rate Quotas, which have prevented Northern Ireland benefiting from reduced U.K. import tariffs on products such as steel, according to three people familiar with the talks.
But in order to reach a broader deal, Sunak will have to decide whether to drop the U.K.’s long-standing demand to change the role of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), which is the ultimate arbiter of disputes over the protocol.
That issue does not feature prominently in the current discussions as it is not included in Šefčovič’s negotiating mandate.
Diplomats warned that Sunak will need to prepare unionists in Northern Ireland as well as Euroskeptic backbenchers within his own Conservative Party before trying to land a deal that fails to address their calls to remove or limit the role of the CJEU.
Brexiteers in the Conservative Party’s European Research Group of MPs are not yet worried about the state of the talks, according to two members.
“[I’m] not at all worried about Sunak. I think he understands the issues. He also understands that if the DUP can’t be satisfied, any new arrangements will be futile,” because “it won’t restore the institutions in Northern Ireland, which is the crucial point,” said one of them.
Monday’s statement came as Cleverly prepares to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken Tuesday, with the Northern Ireland row — on which some in Washington have already been outspoken — among the subjects set to come up.