James Cleverly will resume talks with his EU counterpart today as speculation mounts that a Brexit breakthrough could finally be in sight. The Foreign Secretary will speak to European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic via video link about a proposal to iron out issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Expectations about the prospect of a deal over the post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland have mounted in recent weeks, with suggestions that cross-Channel relations have improved since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister.
The announcement last week that an agreement had been reached on sharing real-time data on goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was seen as a step towards an overall resolution.
A UK Government source said the negotiations were proving “complex and difficult” but added there was a “desire to work together” to reach an agreement.
Talk of pushing through the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which would unilaterally override parts of the protocol – has grown quieter in recent months.
There has also been a flurry of activity in Northern Ireland, including Mr Cleverly’s appearance in Belfast last week, adding to speculation that an announcement is moving closer.
Irish MEP Barry Andrews yesterday told Times Radio that there was an “expectation” that a “political declaration” could emerge from the talks today.
The Fianna Fail politician said: “Not an internationally binding agreement, but a political declaration and framework for the way forward.
“We had some positive announcements last week… and generally I think there’s been a build-up of trust between the parties.”
Speaking about Monday’s talks, a UK Government source said: “We’d all prefer a negotiated solution but significant gaps remain.
“It is the conversations with the commission that will either bring that about or not.
“Nobody should be under any illusions that this is complex and difficult, but the desire to work together on a solution seems to be there.”
Alongside the UK-EU talks, Labor will send a delegation to Derry to discuss the protocol with business leaders as they pile pressure on the UK Government to strike a deal following Sir Keir Starmer’s visit to Belfast last week.
The trip will see shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle and shadow Cabinet Office minister Baroness Chapman visit Foyle Port, a gateway that handles two million tonnes of cargo a year.
The protocol, agreed in 2019, was aimed at preventing a hard border in Ireland, but it has been an ongoing source of tension.
It moved customs and food safety checks and processes to the Irish Sea, creating economic and administrative barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The protocol is vehemently opposed by many unionists and the DUP is blocking the functioning of a devolved government in Stormont in protest at the arrangements.