The UK has stated its commitment to reaching a deal in the long running dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol following two days of talks between UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Commission Vice President Maros Šefčovič.
“What I want is a negotiated solution, I think there is a deal to be done. We have had constructive talks over the last day,” Truss told reporters on Friday (14 January).
In a joint statement following two days of talks at the UK Foreign Secretary’s country residence, Truss and Šefčovič reported that their “meeting took place in a cordial atmosphere”, adding that they had “agreed that officials would meet next week in intensified talks” before meeting again in person on 24 January.
After the often belligerent approach taken by her predecessor David Frost, who resigned as UK Brexit minister in December, Truss wined and dined her EU counterpart on Thursday evening with Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and Kent apple pie. The joint statement, meanwhile, is the first to be issued by EU and UK officials since February 2021.
However, despite the enthusiastic messaging, Truss has said that the threat to invoke Article 16 and suspend the protocol remains on the table should a satisfactory deal not be reached.
“Clearly, if we don’t make sufficient progress, we will have to look at the alternatives but my absolute desire is to get a deal that works for people,” the UK Foreign Secretary said.
With Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing increasing calls to quit from both the public and a growing number of his own Conservative MPs following his admission that he attended a drinks party in the garden of 10 Downing Street at the height of the first Covid lockdown, the negotiations on the protocol could now have a political impact beyond the status of Northern Ireland.
Truss is viewed as one of the favourites to replace Johnson should a leadership contest take place, and could use the talks to burnish her credentials with Conservative MPs.
The EU says it has put forward solutions to reduce customs paperwork and checks on agri-food products, and has taken legislative steps to ensure that medicines travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland do not face checks. Truss has stated, however, that she will not accept a system which allows checks on goods moving solely within the United Kingdom.
Šefčovič tweeted that “now it’s time to start taking issues off the table.”
A report published on Friday by Manufacturing NI, an industry lobby group, found that less than 1 in 4 firms continue to struggle with the processes in the Irish Sea, down from 40% six months ago.
Meanwhile, 1 in 5 manufacturers say they’d like the protocol replaced, while 2 out of 5 want the NI Executive to secure the opportunities presented by the protocol, which includes privileged access to both the EU and UK single markets.
Just over half of all firms reported a negative impact of the protocol on their business in 2021.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]