The UK and EU on Friday agreed to step up talks to try and reach a compromise on the controversial post-Brexit trade deals for Northern Ireland, which have soured ties between the two sides.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Brexit Commissioner Maros Sefcovic issued a joint statement praising the “warm atmosphere” following their first face-to-face meetings at their Grace and Favor Villa in Chevening in Kent.
The tone was very different from last year. Lord David Frost, Britain’s Brexit negotiator who resigned in December, often focused on differences between the two sides and regularly threatened to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of Britain’s exit agreement with the EU that governs trade between Britain and the region regulates .
The UK is calling for a major overhaul of the protocol as it impedes the flow of goods to Northern Ireland and is causing political unrest in the region.
Truss and Sefcovic said UK and EU officials would hold “enhanced talks” next week, with the UK Foreign Secretary and European Brexit Commissioner then meeting on January 24.
“What I want is a negotiated solution, I think there needs to be an agreement,” said Truss, who took charge of the UK’s negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol after Frost’s resignation. “We had constructive discussions.”
Truss has previously said she could get Article 16 of the protocol to suspend several of its provisions, but she has also placed more emphasis than Frost on reaching a compromise with the EU.
Trade Secrets was written by FT trading specialist Alan Beattie and delivered to your inbox on Mondays. Trade Secrets is the FT’s essential briefing on changes in international trade and globalization. Sign up here
“Of course, if we don’t make sufficient progress, we’ll have to look for alternatives, but my absolute desire is to reach a deal that works for people,” she added.
People close to the talks between Truss and Sefcovic said the officials did not engage in technical-level discussions on the substantive issues at stake. Sefcović said on Twitter: “Now is the time to take the issues off the table.”
Under the UK Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland remained in the EU’s single market for goods to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and to uphold the peace process enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The Northern Ireland Protocol instead established a border in the Irish Sea and requires customs and regulatory controls on goods moving into Northern Ireland from the UK.
To try to find a compromise on the protocol, the European Commission proposed in October cutting up to 80 percent of controls on animal and plant products and halving customs paperwork.
But the UK has said it should be as easy to send something from Liverpool to Belfast as it is from Liverpool to Birmingham.
EU officials said the current talks between Truss and Sefcovic are a step forward after the process stalled under frost.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign secretary, called for an early compromise on the Northern Ireland Protocol, well ahead of the dissolution of the region’s Decentralized Assembly in March and elections scheduled for May 5.
“My understanding is that both sides have really just outlined their positions,” he told RTÉ radio. “At that point there was no real progress trying to find landing zones, but I don’t think that was the purpose of this meeting.”
He added: “We would like to have these issues resolved by the end of February if possible.”
Britain after Brexit Newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest post-Brexit developments, with weekly original insights from our Public Policy Editor, Peter Foster, and senior FT contributors. Sign up here.