The EU’s Brexit chief today raised hopes of a breakthrough on the Northern Ireland border row as he claimed there has been a ‘change in tone’ from the UK during crunch talks.
Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission, welcomed Britain apparently softening its approach and said ‘we hope that actions will follow the words’.
Mr Sefcovic is meeting Brexit Minister Lord Frost in Brussels this afternoon for face-to-face discussions.
Lord Frost told reporters when he arrived that there are still ‘significant gaps’ between the two sides and ‘there are some issues that we are making better progress on than others’.
It came after Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin boosted optimism that a deal can be done after he said the ‘mood music’ during negotiations has improved.
Mr Martin said he believes the talks on improving the Northern Ireland Protocol are now in a more constructive place and ‘what is happening is good and positive’.
However, he insisted there is still a ‘long way to go’ to resolve the remaining issues as he cautioned the UK against unilaterally suspending border checks if Brussels fails to budge.
The UK has repeatedly threatened to trigger Article 16 of the protocol which would see the existing arrangements torn up – but Mr Martin warned that ‘unilateralism never works’.
Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission, welcomed Britain apparently softening its approach and said ‘w e hope that actions will follow the words’
Mr Sefcovic is meeting Brexit Minister Lord Frost in Brussels today for face-to-face discussions
The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed as part of the original Brexit deal, requires checks on goods to be carried out at ports in order to avoid the return of a land border with the Republic.
But it has caused disruption to trade and angered unionists who have demanded the rules be scrapped, arguing they create a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The UK and the EU have been holding talks for months on how to improve the operation of the protocol but a breakthrough remains elusive.
The Government has repeatedly threatened to trigger Article 16 of the protocol to unilaterally suspend the border arrangements if the EU refuses to give ground.
Such a move would almost certainly trigger a legal challenge from Brussels and could spark a potential trade war.
Mr Sefcovic today claimed there has been a ‘change in tone’ from the UK during talks as he delivered remarks to the Brexit Institute at Dublin City University.
‘I notice and welcome a recent change in tone from the UK Government and we hope that actions will follow the words,’ he said.
Mr Sefcovic reiterated that the EU is not willing to renegotiate the terms of the original protocol and is instead focused on trying to agree tweaks to smooth its implementation.
The EU has offered to remove up to 80 per cent of required border checks and to slash paperwork by 50 per cent.
He said the bloc’s proposals ‘would create a type of express line’ at the border to smooth trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mr Sefcovic said the EU’s proposed approach would deliver a ‘win-win situation for all’.
But the UK has said the changes do not go far enough and it is seeking further compromises.
Lord Frost said as he arrived at the European Commission for talks that he is not expecting a major breakthrough today.
He said: ‘Our preference is to see if we can find a negotiated way through this problem. If we can’t, Article 16 remains on the table.
‘There are a number of issues that need to be fixed if we are going to resolve this problem. There are still really quite significant gaps between us.
‘I wouldn’t expect any breakthroughs today but there are some issues that we are making better progress on than others.’
Lord Frost yesterday told the EU not to mistake his ‘reasonable tone’ during talks for ‘any softening in the substantive position’.
Boris Johnson said earlier this week that it would be ‘perfectly legitimate’ for the UK to trigger Article 16 if improvements cannot be agreed with the EU.
Mr Martin told the BBC the atmosphere around the talks has now changed and he believes a deal can be achieved.
He had warned at the start of November that triggering Article 16 would be ‘unwise’ and ‘reckless’.
He said: ‘That comment was made some weeks ago when the indications were that a unilateral move was going to be made to just trigger it without really serious engagement on the issues.
‘I now believe that what is happening is good and positive in terms of the engagement, it is the very type of thing I want to see that I hadn’t been seeing.’
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin today said the ‘mood music’ has changed in talks between the UK and the EU
The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed as part of the original Brexit deal, requires checks on goods to be carried out at ports in order to avoid the return of a land border with the Republic
He added: ‘I am glad to say that the mood music has changed. Now, there is still a long way to go and people have to see the substance and the detail of the issues being reconciled but I believe they can.’
Mr Martin said he has been ‘very encouraged by what has transpired this week’ between Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic.
He warned against triggering Article 16 and said ‘my own view is unilateralism never works’ as he said suspending border checks would put the UK-EU relationship into a ‘period of stress’.
‘I don’t want to be entering into a doomsday scenario here or making comments that might be seen as threatening in terms of what could happen,’ he said.
‘But I think the implications are clear to all of us in the sense that this was a negotiated agreement over a year ago and that there is a number of relationships here.
‘There is the European Union-UK relationship. Do we really want that to go into a period of stress?’