The EU and UK have reached an agreement on EU access to UK IT systems governing the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland in what is seen as a significant development in the ongoing talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The agreement was announced following a meeting between the British foreign secretary James Cleverly and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič in London.
A joint statement said: “They agreed that while a range of critical issues need to be resolved to find a way forward, an agreement was reached today on the way forward regarding the specific question of the EU’s access to UK IT systems.”
“They noted this work was a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance, and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions.”
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tánaiste Micheál Martin welcomed the joint statement and said he would be in Brussels tomorrow for talks on the protocol.
A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters the agreement was “an important step forwards”.
The EU has long sought live or semi-live data on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland in order to work out whether to carry out checks on arrival.
Britain has built a new system to provide the EU with real-time customs data relating to Northern Ireland, safety and security declarations and some transit information, to try to ease EU concerns that goods could enter Ireland without paying EU customs.
“We are pleased that they are starting to use the system now and are broadly working with the (UK government) to make ongoing improvements,” Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said.
“There is some progress but there are still significant issues at the heart of the protocol that need addressing,” said the spokesperson referring to issues such as the role of the European Court of Justice in any trade dispute.
Mr Cleverly hosted Mr Šefčovič for lunch in Lancaster House in London to review progress. Both men last met in Brussels on 15 December.
Today’s meeting was described as “cordial and constructive”.
Last month the EU announced the extension of the grace period covering the sale of GB veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland until 2025, and it is understood both sides are committed to reaching a permanent agreement on the issue.
It is understood the EU is prepared to find more flexible solutions, beyond those contained in proposals published in October 2021, but only if member states are convinced that the UK will stick to the agreement.
While all sides are said to be determined to get a functioning Northern Ireland executive restored by the Good Friday Anniversary anniversary, there is widespread uncertainty as to the appetite of the DUP to participate if whatever agreement is reached by the EU and UK does not meet its demands that the protocol must be replaced or significantly changed.
Mr Martin discussed the Northern Ireland Protocol during a phonecall with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson.
Mr Donaldson described the call as “useful”.
In a statement, he said the protocol was now recognised in London, Dublin and Brussels as “the problem for unionists”.
“It was a mistake for the protocol’s authors to press ahead with an agreement that has harmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional and economic place within the United Kingdom,” he said.
“More and more voices now recognise the unanimous view amongst unionist MLAs.
“We have an opportunity to get an outcome from these negotiations which replaces the Protocol by arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and our constitutional position is respected.
“I am committed to the restoration of Stormont, but such a restoration can only be durable if it is built on solid foundations which are supported by unionists and nationalists.”