Detente as UK and EU pause Northern Ireland talks until new year

The European Union and United Kingdom declared a Christmas truce in talks over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements on Friday as Brussels moved to ensure the flow of medicines and London softened one of its red lines.

Tough differences remain between the two sides however, and officials indicated that discussions could become more tense as Northern Ireland’s May elections approach, with the so-called Protocol expected to be an issue of political contention.

The EU has said it is not willing to re-open and re-negotiate the international treaty – which was initially agreed two years ago as part of the Brexit process and was voted into law by both sides – and will only go so far as easing its practical implementation through tweaks such as to reduce friction and checks.

The government of British prime minister Boris Johnson however has pushed for far-reaching changes, at times warning it would use the contentious Article 16 clause to unilaterally suspend the implementation of the deal, arguing that it has now become too politically divisive to endure.

The EU’s lead on the issue, Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, announced on Friday that EU law would be changed to waive a range of formalities on medicines and ensure “that everyone in Northern Ireland has access to the same medicines, at the same time, as in the rest of the United Kingdom”.

The move was taken as a unilateral step by the EU instead of as a mutually agreed solution with Britain and the two sides were unable to agree on a joint statement to conclude the year’s talks, a reflection of enduring distance between them. The EU appealed for London to reciprocate efforts, while the British side complained that its officials had received a copy of the proposed changes too late.

“It is disappointing that it has not been possible to reach either a comprehensive or worthwhile interim agreement this year,” Brexit minister Lord David Frost said in a statement.

“For as long as there is no agreed solution, we remain ready to use the Article 16 safeguard mechanism,” he warned.

Britain has appeared to soften one of its red lines however by accepting the role of the European Court of Justice as the final arbiter over the EU regulations in force in Northern Ireland, while pushing for it to be sidelined in the resolution of disagreements between the two sides.

Officials have called for disputes to be resolved in arbitration panels in what they describe as a Swiss-style arrangement, something the European Commission rules out as legally inapplicable to the Protocol and requiring a re-opening and re-negotiation of the deal.

“The overall difficulty I think that we have, is that our starting point for the European Union is that international agreements that were entered into by two parties ought to be respected,” an EU official said.

“The EU is willing to go quite far in solving problems where genuine practical problems exist. For the UK however, there is still no acceptance that this international agreement ought to be implemented.”

The EU paused legal infringement proceedings against Britain for non-implementation in a bid to give space for talks to try to find solutions.

The Irish Government is keen for relations to remain constructive. However, other EU member states however may favour a tougher approach. On Friday, the French government announced it would ask the European Commission to bring fresh infringement proceedings against Britain for granting too few licences to fish in the waters around Jersey and Guernsey, part of the fallout of Brexit that has become a deeply sensitive political issue as President Emmanuel Macron faces an election in the coming year.

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