Brexit talks resume with Cleverly and Sefcovic face to face

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James Cleverly will hold talks with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels on Thursday about the impasse over the contentious Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol. The Foreign Office and European Commission confirmed the scheduling of the meeting.

A commission spokesman said it was part of the “ongoing engagement” between the senior politicians on the trading arrangements that have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The ongoing dispute over the protocol is intrinsically linked to the current political instability in Northern Ireland.

The region’s largest unionist party, the DUP, is blocking the functioning of the powersharing institutions at Stormont in protest at the protocol, claiming the arrangements have undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.

The party has insisted it will not allow the formation of a ministerial executive in Belfast until radical changes to the protocol are delivered.

The UK Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol it agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.

While it has expressed hope of reaching a negotiated settlement with Brussels, the Government is also progressing contentious legislation at Westminster that would empower ministers to unilaterally scrap the bulk of the arrangements without EU approval.

The latter course of action could prompt retaliatory action from the European Commission.

Both the UK and EU are keen to resolve the dispute before next year’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.

On Tuesday, Mr Cleverly said the tone of his regular discussions with Mr Sefcovic were “positive” and “there is now an understanding that the concerns that we have raised, and that have been raised particularly by the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, are not confected but real, and that any agreement would need to address them”.

While the Foreign Secretary and Mr Sefcovic are meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has invited the leaders of the main Stormont parties to take part in discussions in Belfast on the powersharing impasse.

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Commenting on the state of the engagement between the EU and UK on the protocol, Mr Heaton-Harris told MPs on Wednesday: “I really, truly believe there is landing zone that has been identified by all parties to aim for.”

His comments came as shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle asked if the Government was on track to deliver an agreement by mid-January.

Speaking in Commons Northern Ireland questions, Mr Kyle asked: “It’s good news that the Prime Minister has paused the (Northern Ireland) Protocol Bill. Can the secretary of state confirm that negotiations are on track to deliver an agreement that all communities can support by January 19?”

Responding, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “As (he) knows, I am a glass half-full man and I really, truly believe there is landing zone that has been identified by all parties to aim for. Can I confirm the date? No. Can I give a running commentary? I’m afraid I can’t.”

Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) urged the Northern Ireland Secretary to visit as he branded the situation a “self-created Government mess”.

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He said: “The Northern Ireland Protocol takes a wrecking ball to the deal the Conservatives negotiated, signed and campaigned on, breaks international law and risks new trade barriers in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.

“Secretary of state, political parties in Northern Ireland have been left in limbo, by this Government, they’ve been left out in the cold.

“So given that it was a previous Conservative Prime Minister who negotiated the Protocol, why has the current Prime Minister not even visited Northern Ireland yet to see how it is working and how he is going to sort out this self created Government mess?”

Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “I have regular discussions with Northern Ireland political leaders on Northern Ireland matters including the protocol and the Government is engaging in constructive dialogue with the European Union to find the solutions to the problems the protocol is causing, and we are also proceeding with the legislation which aims to fix these problems in the event that we cannot reach a negotiated solution.”

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