After another week in the laboured talks on solving the issues thrown up by the deal signed by Boris Johnson, Brexit minister Lord Frost said he and EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic had still not reached agreement.
The UK chief negotiator said “intensive talks” would continue next week, and he and Mr Sefcovic will double how often they meet “in the hope of making worthwhile progress towards agreed solutions before Christmas”.
Reports suggested that Lord Frost’s team had watered down its demand that the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) must be removed from arbitration over protocol issues.
But in his statement on Friday, Lord Frost insisted there needed to be “movement on all the difficult issues created by the protocol” – including on the Court of Justice.
After Friday’s meeting Mr Sefcovic claimed it was now “crunch time for medicines, with the EU Commission ready to amend EU legislation”. He has previously claimed that Brussels is ready to make unilateral changes to allow medicines to move more easily into Northern Ireland, without any agreement with the UK.
Both sides are trying to reach an agreement that would reduce customs paperwork and the number of checks required on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and ensure a continued free flow of medicines across the Irish Sea.
In a statement on social media after Friday’s online meeting with Sefcovic, Lord Frost said they had made “further limited progress on medicines but we have not reached agreement”.
He added: “I underlined the need for movement on all the difficult issues created by the protocol, including customs, agri-food rules, subsidy policy, VAT/excise, and governance including the [European] Court of Justice. We will not find a durable solution that does not deal with all these problems.”
Earlier this week Mr Johnson again told MPs the protocol must be changes and reiterated his threat to suspend elements of the accord by triggering the Article 16 mechanism – which could spark an ugly trade war – if an agreement cannot be found.
Meanwhile, France again threatened to push for EU legal action against Britain if it does not show a “sign of goodwill” in the post-Brexit fishing row by a Friday deadline set by the EU.
France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, echoed earlier threats to ask the Commission to launch legal proceedings against the UK if it failed to grant more licences to French fishermen.
But he also suggested the talks could be extended past the deadline as long as the UK shows goodwill. “We won’t get all the licences that we have a right to by tonight,” he told France Info radio on Friday.
“If the British say today ‘We’ll give you … a few dozen extra licences as a gesture of good faith to show that the dialogue is bearing fruit and we’re interested in continuing,’ we’ll take that into account and make an evaluation with the European Commission and perhaps we’ll continue.”
But if Britain refuses to budge on the roughly 100 outstanding licences, France will ask the commission at the weekend to announce the launch of legal proceedings, Mr Beaune added.
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