By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union hopes to resolve the trading difficulties of Northern Ireland by the end of the year, the EU's post-Brexit coordinator said on Tuesday, while warning London against unilaterally suspending the terms of the divorce deal.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who oversees EU relations with Britain, once again rejected a British demand to renegotiate the protocol governing Northern Ireland's trading position.
However, he said wanted to find solutions within the protocol to free up the movement of goods to the British province.
"We should do our utmost to resolve all outstanding issues before the end of the year, so that's the timeframe within which we work," Sefcovic told reporters after a meeting with national EU ministers in Brussels.
He said the bloc wanted to focus on the practical problems faced by people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
Under the protocol, Britain agreed to leave some EU rules in place in Northern Ireland and accept checks on goods arriving from elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in order to preserve an open land border with EU member state Ireland.
However, the arrangement has effectively placed a border in the Irish Sea, angering pro-British unionists who believe it divides them from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Sefcovic's British counterpart David Frost has raised the prospect of triggering "Article 16" of the protocol, which allows either side to dispense with its terms if they are proving unexpectedly harmful.
Sefcovic said it would be "extremely unhelpful" if Britain did so, adding that the European Union would then look into all options in response.
"But, as I said, we definitely hope that we would avoid that scenario because I think that, first and foremost, the best outcome for the people in Northern Ireland would be a solution and not further tensions or confrontations," he said.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, John Chalmers, Sabine Siebold, Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)