The European Commission aims to conclude talks with the UK over Northern Ireland by the end of February, its chief negotiator has said, while giving a bleak assessment of progress so far.
Maros Sefcovic told a private meeting of members of the European parliament on Thursday that both sides wanted a deal to avoid the issue dominating the campaign ahead of elections in Northern Ireland in May, according to those present.
But he warned that the UK had not changed its demands despite an improved tone after Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, replaced Lord David Frost as Brexit negotiator. He added that London continues to insist on a fundamental rewrite of the Northern Ireland protocol, which it signed in 2019 and which governs post-Brexit trade in the region.
Protestant unionist parties have condemned the protocol and are likely to campaign vociferously against it as they try to defend their majority in the Stormont assembly.
The region remains tied to EU single market rules for goods to avoid a trade border on the island of Ireland, which could undermine peace after decades of civil strife. This means goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are subject to customs as well as food and animal health checks.
Talks began in October after the EU claimed it was offering to cut up to 80 per cent of checks on animal and plant-based products, and halve the customs paperwork, but London says the offer would not deliver such reductions in practice.
Sefcovic and Truss met for talks for the first time on January 13 and will convene again in Brussels on Monday.
A joint statement after the last meeting underlined the warmer atmosphere between the two sides but Sefcovic said he was surprised that Truss continued to demand changes the EU has already ruled out.
These include dropping customs requirements for goods the UK deems are destined only for Northern Ireland. Truss also wanted an arbitration mechanism to hear disputes before any referral to the European Court of Justice. And she wanted to remove the requirement for the EU to approve state aid, the subsidies given to companies.
Truss outlined her demands in an article in the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday. She said the EU was “treating Northern Ireland as if it was in the single market and part of the EU when we all know it is not”.
An EU diplomat said Sefcovic told member states’ ambassadors on Thursday that Truss was adopting demands he thought Frost had abandoned. “We are going backwards in time,” the diplomat said.
An EU official said Sefcovic was more likely to pause, rather than end, talks after February if there was no agreement. He has publicly called for more urgency in the process.
Sefcovic also told MEPs that business and civil society in Northern Ireland backed the EU’s proposals and that more than 60 per cent of the population supported the protocol. He added that any changes to the protocol could be enacted swiftly once agreed.
Additional reporting by Peter Foster in Brighton