James Cleverly hails ‘positive step’ in Brexit row with Brussels amid Northern Ireland Protocol stalemate

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Britain and the EU agreed a “way forward” on sharing trade data on Monday, marking a significant breakthrough in the Brexit stalemate over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Following lunchtime talks between Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and the European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in London, the two sides issued a joint statement saying that while a range of “critical issues” still needed to be resolved they had made progress on EU access to UK trade systems.

After the talks Mr Cleverly tweeted: “We share the same focus – finding the best outcome for Northern Ireland. Today’s progress on data sharing marks a positive step in discussions on the NI Protocol.”

The data sharing issue has been a major stumbling block to a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol - part of the 2019 Brexit agreement which avoids the need for a land border on the island of Ireland by setting up checks on some goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Brussels has been demanding better access to information showing which goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland stay in the region and which ones potentially go on to enter Ireland and the EU. In return the EU is thought to be prepared to relax the majority of physical checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, easing costly trade friction and easing political tensions in the region.

Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said recently that it was a key to unlocking the wider talks on the Protocol.

Britain and Brussels are set to intensify talks in the coming weeks as both sides seek a deal ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement in April.

Although the Government is still pressing ahead with new legislation which would override key parts of the protocol, tensions between the two sides have eased in recent months and following the appointment of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with an agreement thought to be within reach.

The protocol, agreed in 2019, is hated by Brexiteers and Democratic Unionists who say it drives a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.

The Democratic Unionist Party is refusing to form a new Government in Northern Ireland until the Protocol is changed, forcing the UK government to call new elections to the Stormont National Assembly in the coming months.

Following the talks today, the EU and UK said: “Vice President Šefčovič met Foreign Secretary Cleverly and the Northern Ireland Secretary Heaton-Harris in London on 9 January. They took stock of work to find joint solutions to the concerns raised by businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. The meeting was cordial and constructive.

“They underlined the EU and UK’s shared commitment to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its parts, while protecting the integrity of both the EU Single Market and the UK internal market.

“They agreed that while a range of critical issues need to be resolved to find a way forward, an agreement was reached today on the way forward regarding the specific question of the EU’s access to UK IT systems.

“They noted this work was a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance, and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions.

“EU and UK technical teams will work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding, and the Foreign Secretary, the Northern Ireland Secretary and Vice President Šefčovič would take stock of progress on 16 January.”

Trade expert David Henig tweeted: “Positive. Far from meaning resolution to the Northern Ireland protocol issues, but an essential step on the road.”