British and EU officials have agreed to meet for the first time in months to discuss how to resolve a bitter dispute over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements, in a sign that new UK prime minister Liz Truss wants to improve relations with Brussels.
Negotiations to find a breakthrough over the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the UK’s Brexit deal that regulates trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, broke down in February.
But on Friday, UK foreign minister James Cleverly spoke to Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, and agreed that officials would meet “soon” to consider kick-starting the stalled talks.
The dispute over the protocol has soured relations between the two sides since the UK left the EU in 2020, but Truss wants to resolve the disagreement.
Cleverley said in a tweet: “Good to speak to Maroš Šefčovič today on important shared issues including the Northern Ireland protocol. We agreed we want to look for solutions to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement. We will speak again soon.”
Šefčovič said in a separate tweet: “Both sides agree to look for solutions around the protocol, to bring predictability and certainty to people in Northern Ireland. The EU is committed to joint efforts. Teams will meet soon. James and I will stay in contact.”
Officials on both sides said the atmosphere had warmed since Truss replaced Boris Johnson as prime minister.
Downing Street announced on Friday that she has agreed to meet leaders from the EU at a summit in Prague next week.
Downing Street said: “The continent faces unprecedented shared challenges, driven by [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, and the UK is resolved to work with international allies to find solutions.”
Truss is prioritising UK economic growth above all else and the lingering dispute with the EU over Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements threatens that goal.
Truss held what UK officials said were “positive” talks with French president Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the UN in New York last week.
British diplomats said Truss wanted to settle the Northern Ireland dispute before next Easter’s 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, potentially leading to a state visit by US president Joe Biden to London in 2023.
The president has urged the UK and EU to reach a negotiated settlement on the protocol.
The protocol kept Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods to avoid a border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
It requires checks on products entering the region from Great Britain, which many of Northern Ireland’s unionists view as undermining the UK’s integrity. Businesses have complained about bureaucracy.
The dispute over the protocol has paralysed politics in Northern Ireland and fresh elections may be called if the assembly at Stormont and the power-sharing executive are not restored by October 28.
The small Ulster Unionist party welcomed the planned meeting between UK and EU officials but called on London and Brussels “to involve key Northern Ireland stakeholders in these discussions”.
Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Dublin