The UK and the EU agreed on Thursday night to look for “workable solutions” to deliver the controversial Northern Ireland protocol, pledging to consult more deeply with the region’s business groups over the impact of the deal.
Following a three-hour meeting in London between Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, and Maros Sefcovic, EU vice-president in charge of relations with the UK, London and Brussels appeared to take a step back following two acrimonious weeks of disagreements.
In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the two sides said the talks had been “frank but constructive” and agreed to “intensify the work” on the protocol “in order to address all outstanding issues, with the shared objective to find workable solutions on the ground”.
Gove and Sefcovic discussed their differences, often in one-to-one talks without officials, over steak and potatoes ordered from Deliveroo.
The discussion focused on the UK government’s demands last week for an “urgent reset” to the protocol, which requires all goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to follow EU customs regulations, putting political and commercial strains on the region.
In a letter to the EU last week, the UK government called for a series of 18-month extensions to grace periods designed to give business more time to adapt to new rules — demands that were partially rebuffed by Sefcovic in a letter delivered on Wednesday.
Although falling short of a breakthrough, officials said that the meeting had served to “lower the temperature” of the debate.
One official with knowledge of the discussions said: “The significant thing we agreed is that the [European] Commission will hear directly from businesses in Northern Ireland to gain an understanding of how the protocol is working in practice. But the proof will be in the pudding.”
The two sides agreed to convene the joint committee that governs the operation of the protocol no later than February 24.
Another UK government insider said: “There wasn’t an immediate rebuff to our proposals but we will see. There is still a lot to be done and a lot of details to be filled in,” adding that the decision to expedite the processes on the joint committee was “positive”.
The offer to consult more closely with affected industries was welcomed by Northern Ireland business groups that have consistently called for more time to adapt to the protocol, which creates a trade border in the Irish Sea as part of the Withdrawal Agreement that Boris Johnson agreed in October 2019.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the agreement to meet business was welcome. “We need four key things: stability from lengthening the grace periods; certainty of long-term workable solutions; simplification of the systems and affordability of those solutions to keep Northern Ireland’s business competitive,” he said.
Both sides struck a more conciliatory tone than in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Sefcovic wrote to Gove, warning that full implementation of the protocol was a “prerequisite” for any further facilitations or easements being demanded by the UK government.
The tough line pushed by some EU member states over the protocol has also caused apparent tensions within the bloc, as the Irish government argued for flexibility in its operation.
Micheál Martin, the Irish premier, said before the dinner that both sides needed to “dial down the rhetoric” after two weeks of sparring sparked by a misjudged commission move to suspend parts of the protocol in order to control the export of Covid-19 vaccines.
“[There are] elements that the British government could sort out. But likewise at the European side, I would say some member states need to cool it as well,” Martin told broadcaster RTE on Thursday.
However, Michel Barnier, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator who led talks over the protocol, earlier on Thursday kept up the pressure by warning that the protocol should be fully implemented by both sides.
“The difficulties on the island of Ireland are caused by Brexit, not by the protocol. The protocol is the solution,” Barnier said at an event hosted by the European Business Summit.