There remain “big gaps” between the UK and the European Union in the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has said.
While there are reports of the negotiations going well, Mr Cleverly stressed that he wants to “manage expectations”.
Appearing before Westminster’s European Scrutiny Committee, Mr Cleverly said there is currently a “better atmosphere”, and that he feels that things are “heading in the right direction”.
However, he added a “big caveat”, that good will and trust is “not sufficient”.
“Those ingredients are there … (but) … we shouldn’t rush to the conclusion that therefore everything’s about to come good because there is still serious work to do and there are still big gaps,” he told the committee.
Mr Cleverly told MPs that he and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic have seen “third party reporting” referring to them being “about to kiss and sign”.
“We’re basically still the same because that’s not where we currently think we are,” he said.
“I don’t think there is a long list (of challenges) but they are tough challenges … I’m just trying to make sure we manage expectations, I don’t want people to be defeatist, but I also don’t want people to run away with the idea that we are just on the cusp of some amazing breakthrough that was there all the time if only we had looked a little bit harder. There are some real challenges which need to be overcome.”
Mr Cleverly also stressed the UK is committed to addressing concerns with the protocol, adding: “It is about the recognition that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Just as much as Braintree is in North Essex, Northern Ireland, North Essex are part of the UK.”
Asked how often negotiations are taking place, he said while it varies, there are forms of negotiations most weeks.
“At the moment that is done at officials’ level, I have a regular check in with Maros Sefcovic,” he said, adding he has not had a formal full ministerial team meeting with Mr Sefcovic as Foreign Secretary since being appointed.
“Technical talks are happening official to official level pretty much on a weekly basis. At some point when we have the opportunity to make the potential to make progress on one of these areas, we’ll sit down and have a formalisation of the of the talks.
“Much work is being done with instruction from the political level without formalised politician to politician talks.”
It was also put to Mr Cleverly that Mr Sefcovic is bound by his mandate and putting proposals outside of that forward is a “futile exercise”.
“I don’t agree,” Mr Cleverly responded.
“My view is if we can put forward a compelling case for the ideas that we believe can address the deficiencies in the protocol, and that we can demonstrate them to the Commission, as well as addressing our concerns, it also addresses the concerns that they have raised with us. I think that’s worth putting in front of them.”
There has been a heightened focus on the talks following the collapse of the devolved government in Northern Ireland.
The DUP is currently boycotting the devolved institutions in protest at the protocol and the party insists it will not countenance a return to a Stormont executive until its economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are removed.
Reacting, Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill urged the UK government to “focus its energies on urgently reaching a negotiated settlement with the EU on the protocol”.
“The people, businesses and key sectors I meet want James Cleverly and his government to urgently reach a negotiated settlement with the EU around the protocol,” she said.
“They want certainty, stability and predictability, and so do we.
“Tomorrow, the Prime Minister will meet President Biden and we welcome the unstinting support of the White House, and the US State Department with whom I met today in their diplomatic efforts to secure a resolution.
“The Conservative Government must refrain from making misleading statements which are unhelpful, and all efforts must be focused on a resolution.
“This is where James Cleverly’s focus and energy must be focused and stepped up in the weeks ahead, as there is no time to waste.”