Northern Ireland Dispute Far From Resolved as EU, U.K. Meet

U.K. Minister David Frost travels to Brussels on Thursday to discuss the tussle over Northern Ireland over dinner with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, but there’s little expectation of a breakthrough.

A British official said the meeting was best described as a staging post, while a European Union official said it was about taking stock of technical discussions that have taken place over the past weeks.

The two sides are trying to unlock a dispute over the implementation of the protocol after the U.K. unilaterally extended a waiver on checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The temporary exemption was part of the trade agreement aimed at keeping the Irish border free of checkpoints after the U.K. left the bloc. The EU argues that the British decision breaches the post-Brexit accords and breaks international law.

The measures were lawful and “part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol,” Max Blain, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman, said in a regular briefing with reporters on Wednesday. Thursday’s meeting was “part of ongoing work” of “technical engagement” with the EU over the protocol, he added. “Those discussions so far have been constructive but there are still significant differences which need to be resolved.”

The EU began legal proceedings last month and had its eye on this week to push forward with further action if Britain failed to come up with a credible plan to fix the matter.

But amid increased violence in Northern Ireland, the EU has decided to put on ice such measures while the two sides work jointly on a way forward, people familiar told Bloomberg News last week. Irish broadcaster RTE confirmed on Wednesday that the sides had agreed to provide the U.K. with more time to reply to the EU’s requests.

In a letter Sefcovic sent to Frost last month, the Commission asked the U.K. to provide a credible road map for the implementation of the deal.

An official said the proposals submitted by the U.K. at the end of last month, while unsatisfactory, were enough to allow for further discussions. Sefcovic wrote that there had been insufficient progress on the ground in the U.K. toward putting in place agreed practical arrangements needed to implement the protocol.

The Commission vice president had written to his British counterpart, then Michael Gove, the previous month noting “a number of current shortcomings,” including that border control posts were not yet fully operational, very few checks on live animals and plants were being carried out, and non-compliant consignments were being waived through. The EU also complained that it wasn’t yet allowed to access the systems needed to receive information relevant to tracking agreed flexibilities in the deal, such as a trusted trader scheme and simplified health certificates.

An EU official said the two sides have had almost daily contact over the past two weeks on a technical level on these issues, as well as preliminary discussions on arrangements related to sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. The aim of Thursday’s dinner will be to give the discussions political direction for the next few weeks, the official added.

An EU official said that an agreement -- if one is to be reached -- was still many weeks away given the amount of work that remains to be done.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.