Britain and the EU will intensify efforts next week to break their impasse over post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, as Brussels cautiously welcomed a change in tone from London.
After meeting with David Frost, Britain's Brexit minister, in London, EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic said the two sides would now seek to make headway on issues such as customs checks and the movement of medicines into Northern Ireland.
Relations between Brussels and London have deteriorated in recent weeks after Britain, unhappy with the deal it signed on to in 2020, threatened to trigger an emergency clause known as Article 16, potentially leading to a trade war.
Mr Sefcovic said he hoped the two sides could build momentum by dealing with specific issues rather than addressing more fundamental concerns that London wants to address, such as its desire to remove Europe's top court from any regulatory role.
Brussels also wants London to reciprocate in the talks with its own concessions after it offered to cut some of the checks needed on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Mr Frost said “significant gaps” remained and Brussels must address the issues that London has raised. But he confirmed that intensified talks would take place in Brussels next week and that new energy and impetus were needed.
“I acknowledge and welcome the change in tone of discussion with David Frost today and I hope this will lead to tangible results for the people in Northern Ireland,” Mr Sefcovic told a news conference in London after the talks.
Since leaving the EU last year, Britain has delayed the introduction of some border checks that were designed to avoid the need for a hard frontier between the British province and EU member Ireland.
London says the checks are disproportionate and threaten Northern Ireland's 1998 peace deal. The EU says tight controls are needed to protect its single market of 450 million people.
The EU has cautioned Britain that triggering Article 16 — part of a deal UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed in 2020 — would sour ties with the EU and destabilise Northern Ireland.
Ireland has said the free trade deal that was underpinned by the Northern Ireland agreement could also be set aside, which could result in a trade war.
One area of particular concern regards regulatory oversight in Northern Ireland, with London demanding that any governing role for the European Court of Justice be removed from the UK-EU divorce settlement.
However, Mr Sefcovic said this remained a red line for Brussels, and added that the court was the “guardian of the single market rules”, rules that still apply in Northern Ireland.
“Without the European Court of Justice jurisdiction, there is no access to the single market,” he said.