EU hails ‘welcome change of tone’ as UK backs away from suspending Northern Ireland Brexit deal

Talks to focus on medicines and customs red tape – not European Court of Justice – as David Frost gives ground

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 12 November 2021 17:50
Comments
<p>Maros Sefcovic, EU Commission vice-president, speaking after a meeting at Lancaster House in London on Friday, the fourth to be held to attempt to resolve issues with the Northern Ireland protocol</p>

Maros Sefcovic, EU Commission vice-president, speaking after a meeting at Lancaster House in London on Friday, the fourth to be held to attempt to resolve issues with the Northern Ireland protocol

The EU has hailed a “welcome change of tone” in talks on the Northern Ireland Brexit deal, suggesting the UK is backing away from threats to suspend it.

Both sides have also agreed to focus on medicines and customs red tape – not the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – when they meet again – in a further sign that the crisis can be averted.

Strikingly, the Brexit minister David Frost did not repeat his threat to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, in a statement following the meeting with the European Commission.

At a media briefing in London, Maros Sefcovic, the Commission vice-president, called the issue of delivering medicines across the Irish Sea “low-hanging fruit” that could “open other doors” to wider agreement.

And he said: “I acknowledge and welcome the change in tone of discussion with David Frost today, and I hope this will lead to tangible results for the people in Northern Ireland.”

Boris Johnson had been moving closer to triggering Article 16 – almost certainly resulting in a damaging trade war with the EU – but the sleaze scandal has sapped his authority in recent days.

There have been indications of UK cold feet since Wednesday, when Lord Frost acknowledged the risk of “massive and disproportionate retaliation” from Brussels.

Ireland has argued Brussels would have no choice but to suspend last Christmas’s trade deal for the entire UK, which could result in punishing tariffs for exporters.

Many Conservative MPs are known to be nervous about effectively re-running the Brexit battle – having been elected on a platform to “get Brexit done”.

On British medicines – which face checks to ensure they comply with EU standards – Mr Sefcovic said: “If our experts put their mind to it, they can actually resolve it within a week, I really believe so, because we are so close.”

An agreement would put “new momentum” into the discussions which would “hopefully open up other doors and lead us to success”.

In its statement, the UK made no mention of his attempt to strip out ECJ policing of the protocol, which the EU insists is a non-starter.

“On the European court, on our side definitely nothing’s changed.” Mr Sefcovic made clear.

There were still “significant gaps to be bridged” but the UK preferred to “find a consensual way forward”, a government spokesperson said.

“Although talks had so far been conducted in a constructive spirit, Lord Frost underlined that in order to make progress, it was important to bring new energy and impetus to discussions,” the statement said.

“Accordingly, intensified talks will take place between teams in Brussels next week on all issues, giving particular attention to medicines and customs issues.”

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