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Brexit negotiators step back from brink on Northern Ireland

The European Union and the UK government have taken a step back after a week of confrontation over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland trading arrangements, agreeing to refocus talks on areas where there is prospect of reaching agreement.

Despite the UK warning that “significant gaps” remained in efforts to resolve a year-long row over Northern Ireland, both sides tried to strike a more constructive tone following a ministerial-level meeting in London on Friday.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, said that while the UK still needed to engage more fully in resolving issues raised by the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the mood had improved. “I acknowledge and welcome the change in tone in discussion,” he said.

David Frost, the UK Brexit minister who is demanding a root-and-branch rewriting of the protocol, said that while talks had been conducted in a “constructive spirit” it was now important “to bring new energy and impetus” to the discussions, including tackling the full list of UK demands.

The move to calm the rhetoric came at the end of a week of rising tensions in which the Irish deputy prime minister had warned that Brussels could suspend the entire EU-UK trade agreement if London tried to walk away from the arrangement for Northern Ireland.

The protocol, which formed part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement, leaves Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods. It requires a customs border in the Irish Sea in order to prevent the return of a north-south trade border on the island of Ireland.

Since July the British government has said this arrangement was “not sustainable” because of trade frictions it created within the UK’s own internal market and London has been threatening to suspend parts of the deal via a safeguards clause known as Article 16.

Sefcovic said discussion of Article 16 had come up “too often” in recent communications between the two sides and urged the UK to focus on the EU’s practical proposals that he said would reduce Irish Sea border customs checks by up to 50 per cent.

In a statement released after the talks, Frost said that while the UK preferred a “consensual way forward”, it still reserved its right to use the Article 16 safeguards, which were “a legitimate part of the protocol’s provisions”.

No deadline has been set to resolve the disagreements between the two sides. Frost said this week that only a “short number of weeks” remained, but two senior Whitehall insiders with knowledge of internal discussions said the UK shift in tone was “significant” and that it was now possible that any decision to trigger Article 16 could be deferred until after Christmas.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the main Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland that has been calling for the UK government to ditch the protocol, said he understood that the UK could resort to Article 16 in the “next couple of weeks” if discussions did not reach an acceptable outcome.

The difference between the two sides centres on the UK’s demand that the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, should not preside over the deal, with its role being replaced by a ‘treaty-based’ arbitration mechanism.

The EU has already rejected this. “On the European Court [of Justice] on our side, definitely nothing has changed,” Sefcovic said.

With deadlock over the ECJ issue, the two sides agreed to concentrate next week’s negotiations on two areas — medicines and customs checks — where there was a prospect of concrete progress being made.

Sefcovic said he hoped progress on this “low hanging fruit” could inject some momentum into the talks. He will meet Frost in Brussels next Friday to review progress.

Additional reporting Mehreen Khan

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