Northern Ireland Protocol: 'We can see finishing line' on deal, says EU Brexit negotiator

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By Alice Tidey
European Commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight Maros Sefcovic at EU headquarters in Brussels, June 15, 2022.
European Commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight Maros Sefcovic at EU headquarters in Brussels, June 15, 2022.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

The "finishing line" for a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol is in sight, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator said on Tuesday ahead of more talks with his British counterpart.

Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations, told reporters after a meeting of the General Affairs Council in Brussels that "with our UK partners, we have made good progress."

"We clearly can see the finishing line. But in such a negotiation, being close doesn't mean being done," he added.

Talks between Brussels and London have intensified over the past couple of weeks, fuelling expectations that a deal is near.

Šefčovič met with Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly last week which was followed on Monday by a video call in which Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also took part.

Another such call was to be held on Tuesday afternoon, with a meeting expected later in the week, a Commission spokesman has confirmed.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also discussed the negotiations over the weekend during a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

"I can assure you that we spare no efforts to cross the finishing line and find joint solutions," Šefčovič said.

"The focus, therefore, is on concrete solutions to the concrete implementation challenges, and our discussions continue at full speed," he also said.

The talks are aimed at alleviating checks for goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland has remained within the EU's Customs Union which has created a de-facto border in the Irish Sea as checks must be carried out between the two sides of the UK. This was done so that there are no such checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that some fear could reignite sectarian violence that ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. 

But London and unionists in Northern Ireland have since decried this, leading to political stalemate in the region and the British government tabling a bill that would allow it to unilaterally pull out of the treaty.

Brussels has warned it would take legal action if the legislation is adopted, as it says it violates international law.

Šefčovič said that the negotiations are now in "a very delicate stage", and are "very complex" and "very detailed" and that the EU is bringing a "constructive approach, lots of creativity" to the table. 

"I think what both our partners in the UK and clearly our service are feeling already for quite some time that (the) sooner we will be able to provide to all communities and people in Northern Ireland with predictability, stability with legal certainty, the better it would be for the economy, for sorting out their daily problems.

"We want to make sure that we will cross all the T's, put all the dots where it belongs, and arrive at (a) joint solution with our UK partners and have an agreement which should be owned by everyone. And because in that case it could be properly implemented, only in that case it will bring the benefits we all hope it will deliver to the people of Northern Ireland," he added.