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UK and EU leaders expect talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol to reach a cliff-edge once again, with both sides still a long way off agreeing a way forward before various grace periods covering trade across the Irish Sea expire in September.
Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, who oversees the UK’s relationship with the EU, is set to speak to European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic this week about the next steps, PoliticsHome can reveal, after the UK published a highly-anticipated set of revised proposals for the trade with Northern Ireland last week.
In a command paper, the government called for the post-Brexit arrangements to be fundamentally re-written, describing the current situation in Northern Ireland as unsustainable.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed as part of Brexit negotiations last year, was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. However, it has resulted in a trade border between the province and the rest of the UK, which has contributed to unrest among unionist communities.
The UK has accused the EU of being overzealous in its application of the new checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Brussels says the new red tape is what Boris Johnson knowingly agreed to when he signed his “oven-ready” Brexit deal in late 2020.
EU figures believe the UK proposals, which Johnson argued were “necessarily ambitious,” are tantamount to replacing the Northern Ireland Protocol. One Brussels source said they would require at least half of the treaty to be re-written, and that while the EU was prepared to make changes within the existing framework, the UK wants to scrap the agreed framework altogether.
However, despite the apparent gulf between the two positions, government figures are heading into Westminster’s summer holiday feeling cautiously optimistic.
One told PoliticsHome the EU had issued an encouraging response to a UK request for a “standstill” on Monday — a period during which all current arrangements for Irish Sea trade, including several grace periods, would be extended indefinity. The government argues this would give the two sides the additional time and space they need to negotiate solutions for the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“It’s not an awful place to be in,” the government source said, stressing that Brussels had indicated a willingness to at least discuss the UK proposals behind the scenes.
An EU spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday that the bloc had decided to pause legal action against the UK over its decision to take unilateral action on the Protocol earlier this year, saying it would create “necessary space” to find solutions for the Protocol.
A government spokesperson welcomed the move in an official statement.
“We have received a constructive reply from the Commission in response to our request for a standstill on existing arrangements,” they said.
“We look forward to engaging in talks with the EU in the weeks ahead to progress the proposals in our command paper.
“As we set out in the Command Paper last week, significant changes are needed to ensure the Protocol is sustainable for future.”
That’s not to say the EU isn’t annoyed by the UK’s behaviour — it is.
There is frustration with what it believes is a brazen attempt by Johnson and Frost to wriggle out of commitments they signed up to just eight months ago. EU figures also complain about what they describe as the UK constantly expanding its list of requests, pointing to the government’s new demand that the European Court of Justice no longer police the Northern Ireland Protocol.
EU figures are still trying to work out the UK’s long-term strategy.
As one put to PoliticsHome: does [the UK] genuinely want to find solutions? Or is it finding enough problems to justify terminating the Northern Ireland Protocol further down the line, by triggering Article 16?
The government still hasn’t triggered Article 16, despite claiming the conditions for doing so — an unacceptable level of disruption to trade and day-to-day life in the province — have already been met.
With swathes of officials on both sides taking holiday in the next few weeks, the UK and EU are not expected to engage in intensive technical discussions until late next month.
This will be just weeks before grace periods covering several aspects of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland run out at the end of September.
These mitigations include a temporary suspension of the need for Export Health Certificates, which businesses say will unleash a wave of new red tape on food traders once they are introduced.
Sources on both sides said the next few weeks would be quiet before a flurry of activity in early September, or what one EU official described as a “pressure point.”
The same source offered the view that the only way out of the current impasse was many more months of negotiations between UK and EU officials, putting pay to any suggestion that Brexit “is done.”
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