“Certain progress” on only two issues concerning the NI protocol
Senior UK government sources said technical talks around 30 areas of disagreement with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol have resulted in definite progress on only two of the issues.
They say there are “about half a dozen” other areas where progress towards a solution has been made.
The sources said the UK government has yet to give up hope that the EU will move significantly in the coming weeks.
The EU has repeatedly stated that the UK has failed to live up to a number of key Protocol commitments to which it has subscribed.
The sources said UK negotiators had submitted ten documents covering a range of proposed solutions that they said would reduce the obstacles the Protocol caused for businesses in Northern Ireland, but claim the EU has been slow to s ‘to hire.
The sources say that an assessment of the negotiations will be taken at a meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee on June 9.
As new DUP chief Edwin Poots and other trade unionists insist the protocol must be scrapped entirely, the sources said the UK government accepts the need for a mechanism to regulate any new trade deal on movement of goods between the EU and Northern Ireland.
“There’s going to have to be some form of protocol, if not this protocol,” one of them said.
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David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator on the protocol, was in Northern Ireland yesterday to meet with business representatives and members of the CNR community (Catholic, Nationalist and Republican).
He has already met community groups of the PUL (Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist), including the Loyalist Communities Council, which includes representatives of loyalist paramilitary organizations.
Sources said that while CNR representatives were keen to focus on the opportunities offered by the protocol rather than the obstacles, there was “empathy” for trade unionists and loyalists who felt their British identity had been undermined.
“It is clear from conversations I have had with representatives of business and the community here today that the way the protocol works presents some very significant challenges,” Frost said afterwards.
“I’ve heard from business groups, like I did last time, about how some suppliers from Britain are starting to stop sending products to Northern Ireland, we’ve also heard of reduced availability and choices, canceled deliveries, withdrawn products, interference with the movement of pets, packages, etc.
“The protocol is built on cross-community support, but this situation risks undermining it. Our number one priority as the UK government is the protection of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, hence north-south and east, west, and this is indeed the explicit top priority in the protocol itself in the text.
“We hope the commission and share this point of view on prioritization, but if so, they’re not always as clear about it as they could be.”
Mr Frost said the main issue worrying the UK is that the EU wants to treat the regulatory border in the Irish Sea as if it were like any other external border, despite protocol obligations to to facilitate trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
He said the UK government remained determined to resolve issues with the EU to find a way forward “but progress is limited”.
“We believe that the EU needs to show more common sense and pragmatism, it is difficult to see the protocol as it currently works can be sustainable for a long time,” he added.
“We continue to consider all of our options to meet our overarching responsibilities to maintain peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said there was “political will in Dublin” to resolve issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, but warned that “unilateral action will get us nowhere”.
Speaking at Dublin Castle at an online event as part of the Shared Islands Dialogue Series, Mr Varadkar said there are clear advantages to cooperation between all the islands that should be utilized.
He said that a solution to the problems related to the protocol “will require some degree of alignment” with “certain rules” and “controls and standards”.
He said it was in the interests of the European Commission and the UK “to come to an agreement on this point” because the alternative is a “break”.
Mr Varadkar said he would do his best to work well with the new DUP leader Edwin Poots, however, he said, “political parties are only political parties”, and ministers are talking on behalf of a government and set policy.
He said that in order to “restart” political relations, there must be an agreement on the protocol.
“With the countdown to the elections having indeed started, I think we are in a few hectic months – but we have been here before,” he added.