Britain and the EU on Friday agreed to pursue efforts to resolve a dispute over trade with Northern Ireland with London saying there was a “potential for momentum” in the negotiations.
British minister David Frost met his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic in Brussels as they tried to avert a damaging trade war and the dramatic unravelling of their post-Brexit relations.
“Following the meeting last week, intensive and constructive talks have proceeded between the UK and EU teams. There is the potential to generate some momentum in our discussions,” Frost said, in a carefully worded statement after the meeting.
Earlier, arriving at the Berlaymont building to sit down with Sefcovic, the British minister had warned reporters not to expect early progress, adding that an expected breakthrough on medicines was not in the cards either.
“Significant gaps remain across most issues,” the Frost statement said, with another meeting with Sefcovic agreed for November 26 in London.
Negotiators said they were wrangling on several key issues that threatened the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that governs the British province neighbouring EU-member Ireland.
There are also questions over the use of UK licensed medicines in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom, but under the rules of the EU single market.
In a separate statement, Sefcovic said there was a “genuine urgency” on medicines and urged that “we press on and get this crucial issue across the line.”
Britain is especially focused on revamping the agreement’s governance, objecting that the EU’s highest court in Luxembourg has power over its implementation.
London has threatened to invoke “Article 16” to suspend aspects of the protocol pending further negotiations if Brussels insists on applying it before trade issues are resolved.
But Sefcovic told an online event hosted by the Brexit Institute of Dublin City University on Friday that the Northern Ireland Protocol — part of the Withdrawal Agreement — cannot be divided from the broader UK-EU post-Brexit trade deal — known as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).
“The two agreements are intrinsically linked, one cannot exist without the other,” he said.
Frost, however, insisted that Article 16 is a “legitimate provision” within the Northern Ireland protocol to provide safeguards in the event of disagreements over its application.
“We are looking at every issue in this discussion,” he said.
“There are large numbers of issues that need to be fixed, to get resolved, and that is part of the discussion. But there are still really quite significant gaps between us.”
The talks do not cover fishing, where France is furious that its fishing vessels are struggling to maintain access to waters of Jersey, a British crown dependency near the French coast.
“We are going to continue to fight, we will not abandon our fishermen,” President Emmanuel Macron vowed on Friday, criticising the European Commission for in his view not fighting hard enough for EU member France’s interests.