UK and EU data agreement key to Northern Ireland Protocol talks

Resolving access to information will rebuild trust, say British Foreign Affairs Minister and EU Commission vice-president

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said all sides wanted the best outcome for Northern Ireland. Reuters
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Britain and the EU came to an agreement on data-sharing on Monday, in a step towards resolving issues stemming from post-Brexit rules governing trade with Northern Ireland, the two sides said.

The agreement was critical to further talks on the trading regulations known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, UK Foreign Minister James Cleverly and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said after a meeting in London.

“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 said in a joint statement.

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

The meeting was described as “cordial and constructive”.

“We share the same focus — finding the best outcome for Northern Ireland,” said Mr Cleverly on Twitter.

Mr Sefcovic tweeted that EU and UK teams “will work rapidly to scope potential for solutions in different areas”. They will measure progress next Monday.

Hopes are high that the EU and the UK can reach an agreement in negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks following Rishi Sunak’s appointment as UK Prime Minister in late October, an EU official told The National last week.

Officials have two possible deadlines in mind. The first is next Thursday, which is the deadline for the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to call elections. The second is the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended a long-running conflict in Northern Ireland, on April 10.

Brussels is concerned that the UK is not making checks on products entering Northern Ireland from Britain as stipulated in the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into force in January 2021, following Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

The EU worries that a lack of checks would promote smuggling or tax dodging but Britain has tried to keep checks at a minimum to promote the free flow of goods.

Checks are to be conducted in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, amid fears that a land border would revive tensions on the island.

The protocol stipulates that the UK should share live customs data with the EU about trade between Northern Ireland and Britain to ease the EU's concerns.

The UK delayed building the necessary system, meaning tests were not carried out before late 2022.

“I think we've made some progress in recent weeks, but we're not quite there yet,” Ireland's foreign affairs minister at the time, Simon Coveney, said in December.

The issue has overshadowed Northern Irish politics since it was agreed, as members of the unionist community are unhappy with the difficulties it creates for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The Democratic Unionist Party has refused to co-operate with forming a devolved executive in Belfast until issues with the agreement are resolved.

Updated: January 09, 2023, 5:22 PM