The UK has declared its commitment to reaching an agreement in the long-standing dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol after two days of talks between British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and the Vice-President of the European Commission Maros Šefcovic.
“What I want is a negotiated solution, I think there is a deal to be made. We have had constructive discussions over the last day,” Truss told reporters on Friday January 14.
In a joint statement after two days of talks at the British Foreign Secretary’s residence, Truss and Šefčovič said their “meeting took place in a cordial atmosphere”, adding that they “agreed that officials would meet next week in ‘intensified talks’ before meeting again in person on Jan. 24.
After the often bellicose approach taken by his predecessor David Frost, who resigned as Britain’s Brexit minister in December, Truss sampled and dined his European counterpart on Thursday night 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 messages, Truss said the threat to invoke Article 16 and suspend the protocol remains on the table if a satisfactory agreement is not reached.
“Obviously if we don’t make enough 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.
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces growing calls for his resignation from the public and a growing number of his own Tory MPs after admitting he attended a drink in the garden of 10 Downing Street At the height of the first Covid lockdown, negotiations over the protocol could now have a political impact beyond Northern Ireland’s status.
Truss is seen as one of the favorites to replace Johnson in the event of a leadership race and could use the talks to shine her credentials with Tory MPs.
The EU says it has offered solutions to reduce customs formalities and checks on agri-food products, and has taken legislative action to ensure that medicines traveling from Britain to Northern Ireland are not subject to checks. Truss, however, said she would not accept a system to check goods moving only within the UK.
Šefčovič tweeted that “now is the time to start taking the issues off the table”.
A report released on Friday by Manufacturing NI, an industry lobby group, found that less than one in four companies are still struggling with processes in the Irish Sea, down from 40% six months ago.
Meanwhile, 1 in 5 manufacturers say they would like to see the protocol replaced, while 2 in 5 want the NI executive to secure the opportunities presented by the protocol, which includes privileged access to unique markets in the EU and UK.
Just over half of all businesses reported a negative impact of the protocol on their business in 2021.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]