Can the EU and UK agree a deal on Northern Ireland

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Talks will resume this week between the British government and the European Union over how to resolve the long-running dispute over trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that soured the first year of post-Brexit relations.

Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, will attempt to cut the Gordian knot left by her predecessor, Lord David Frost, who resigned late last year just as London began retreating from some of its stiffest demands.

Ms Truss has struck a warmer tone than Frost in initial contacts and has invited Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission, to meet at her grace-and-favour mansion in Chevening, Kent, on Thursday night, promising “constructive proposals” to break the deadlock.

But officials on both sides concede that on the substance of how to manage the new trade border in the Irish Sea, they remain far apart. What are the prospects for a deal?

The UK position

Like her predecessor, Ms Truss maintains that the Brexit deal that the UK agreed in 2019 for Northern Ireland is “not sustainable” and needs radical reshaping.

The Northern Ireland protocol left the region in the EU single market for goods to avoid bringing back a hard trade border on the island of Ireland, but this necessitated the creation of a trade border in the Irish Sea.

The British government says this trade border unnecessarily divides the UK’s own internal market and is causing a hit to traders in Great Britain, who now face high levels of bureaucracy to send goods from the mainland to Northern Ireland.

Ms Truss took a tough line in a newspaper article published over the weekend, writing that the UK wants to see “no checks or documentation for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”.

London also wants the EU to change a section of the protocol that requires any UK government subsidy decision that could impact on the region’s goods market to be cleared in Brussels by the European Commission.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic who will be negotiating with the UK on Brexit.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic who will be negotiating with the UK on Brexit.

In addition, the UK wants to eliminate any requirement for businesses in Northern Ireland to notify the EU when goods are leaving the EU single market, which is required under EU law.

Lastly, the UK is looking to remove the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, as the “final arbiter” of future disputes over the protocol. In its place, London wants to have an arbitration mechanism, with the ECJ ruling only on matters of EU law.

If Brussels does not address these concerns, Ms Truss says she reserves the right to trigger the Article 16 safeguarding clause in the protocol, which would temporarily suspend parts of the deal while solutions are found.

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