The prospects for a deal over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland have been raised as Brussels welcomed the UK government’s “change in tone” and David Frost said he believed the EU did want to fix the thorniest issues in the talks.
The combative language around previous meetings between Lord Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, and the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič had been dropped ahead of a fifth meeting of the two chief negotiators.
Šefčovič reiterated his call for a reciprocal “move” by Boris Johnson’s government following the EU’s proposal in October to cut out most checks on goods coming from Britain. The commissioner also warned that should Downing Street trigger article 16 to suspend parts of the withdrawal agreement rather than find a negotiated solution it would be destabilising to Northern Ireland.
But in an online address to Dublin City University ahead of meeting Frost, he said he had “noticed and welcomed a recent change of tone from the UK government and we hope that actions will follow words”.
In turn, Frost told reporters as he went in to meet Šefčovič that he had been heartened by comments on Thursday night from the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin. “Where there is a will, there is a way, and I think both sides just need to knuckle down and get it resolved,” Martin had said in an interview with the BBC.
Asked whether there was any prospect of a compromise solution on the UK’s demand that the European court of justice lose its role as arbiter of disputes over EU law in Northern Ireland, Frost was conciliatory.
He said: “It’s not an issue that we have managed to discuss very much so far. We have very different positions. But I know the taoiseach said last night that the EU had serious intent to resolve the difficulties that we’re facing, and I think that’s very good thing that we take that very seriously.”
A protocol in the withdrawal agreement Johnson signed keeps Northern Ireland in the single market and draws a customs border down the Irish Sea in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. In October, the EU offered to drastically reduce the number of checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in recognition of the political and economic disruption being caused.
On Friday, Šefčovič said: “These measures would create a type of ‘express lane’ which would substantially facilitate trade between all parties . A win-win situation for all. It is a unique and completely new model for how goods can be moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, one that would strengthen opportunities for people and businesses alike.”
He said the EU was continuing to reject the UK’s request for a more fundamental redrafting of the protocol. “We will not renegotiate the protocol,” he said. “To do so would mean to put at risk the stability in Northern Ireland. And it would be unnecessary, because solutions are available within the framework of the protocol.”
Frost had told the House of Lords on Thursday that Brussels should not interpret his “reasonable tone” to imply any softening of the UK’s position, and that article 16 was still “very much on the table”. “Our position has not changed,” he said.
He echoed those sentiments again on Friday. “Obviously, our preference is to see if we can find a negotiated way through this problem,” he said. “If we can’t, article 16 remains on the table. There are a large number of issues that need to be fixed if we are going to resolve this problem.”