(Bloomberg) — UK and European Union negotiators are closing in on a resolution to end their long-running dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
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After sealing an agreement last week on real-time trade data, the two sides are also nearing agreement on customs aimed at reducing frictions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland since the UK left the bloc.
On Monday, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic are due to hold a call to take stock of the discussions to see if a comprehensive deal can be reached. The aim is to then move into a negotiating “tunnel” of intensive talks, though big gaps remain on many issues.
The prize is an agreement that would thaw relations which have been strained since Britain completed its EU divorce. A deal also has the potential to end a political standoff that’s prevented Northern Ireland’s devolved administration from being formed, because of the objections of unionists to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the existing pact that’s led to the region being treated differently from the rest of the UK.
The talks gained momentum last week when the EU agreed to use a real-time UK database tracking goods moving over the Irish sea border — a development which could open up a broader customs deal.
‘Build-Up of Trust’
The UK and EU have made similar proposals to separate goods only going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK versus those which will continue into the EU.
“There’s been a build-up of trust between the parties,” Irish Member of the European Parliament Barry Andrews, a member of Foreign Minister Micheal Martin’s Dianna Fail party, told Times Radio on Sunday. “The expectation is there will be a political declaration – not an internationally binding agreement – but a political declaration and framework for the way forward” after the Sefcovic-Cleverly meeting.
After two years of rancor, the two sides aim to unlock a comprehensive deal by the end of February, ahead of the April anniversary of the 1998 Belfast peace agreement, Bloomberg previously reported.
What the UK and EU Need to Fix in Quest for Final Brexit Deal
But while negotiators may be close to a customs deal, people familiar with the matter say there’s still a way to go to seal a broader agreement, and that thornier issues remain, not least over the role of the European Court of Justice and checks on agri-food products.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ruling Conservative Party will also have to broker a deal it can sell to the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which is staunchly opposed to the protocol. The DUP has prevented the formation of the regional government since May, saying trading arrangements with Great Britain need to be changed first.
Sunak has already won the backing of Labour leader Keir Starmer, who pledged his support on Friday for any eventual deal, dampening the prospect of a future rebellion back in London from opposition MPs.
–With assistance from Ellen Milligan and Alberto Nardelli.
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