Britain’s pullback on article 16 creates ‘opportunity’ to progress on protocol

A pullback by Britain from triggering article 16 in recent days has created a “window of opportunity” to resolve the dispute over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney spoke in Brussels after meeting with the European Union’s lead in talks with the United Kingdom, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, amid efforts to dissuade London from suspending parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.

British negotiators are set to arrive in the city on Wednesday to lay the groundwork for a meeting between Mr Sefcovic and his British counterpart David Frost on Friday.

Mr Coveney indicated that the EU would lay out proposals on medicines in particular that would allay concerns in the North about interruptions to supply.

“There’s a real opportunity to try to make some progress on medicines in particular this week, and then use that as a basis to build trust to try to solve other issues as well,” Mr Coveney said.

Moves by Britain in recent weeks towards using the sensitive article 16 clause to suspend arrangements designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland had “impacted on trust”, he said. Nevertheless, he suggested that an ease in momentum away from pulling the trigger was a positive step.

“It’s just hard to know whether this is a tactical sort of pullback for now, or whether it’s a genuine effort to try to find a way forward. But I think our job is to be positive, to be optimistic, and to try to create windows of opportunity when they are there. And clearly there’s one there now,” Mr Coveney said.

‘Robust’ response

In the background, the commission has been preparing options for an EU response if Britain does use article 16. This is thought to include options that would affect the EU’s overall trade deal with the UK, an outcome that would hit Ireland’s economy as well as Britain’s.

Any use of article 16 “would be seen as a big deal in the EU and the response would be robust and quite significant,” Mr Coveney said, adding that there would be “strong unity” in the EU response.

A gulf remains between the two sides on the issue of the European Court of Justice. Britain has insisted that its arbitration role must be removed from Northern Ireland’s arrangements. But the EU has ruled this out, as it is an essential condition of the North’s inclusion in the single market.

EU negotiators hope that if all other practical issues with the protocol can be solved, the role of the court will recede in importance.

With sufficient political will from Britain, the standoff could be solved by Christmas, Mr Coveney insisted.

“We think some of the problems can be solved quickly, which could actually generate some momentum in this talks process. Some of the other problems will take a little longer because they are technical and complex, around customs codes and so on,” Mr Coveney said.

“But look, there is no doubt that if both sides wanted to, and [are] focused on making progress, that we could get these issues resolved before Christmas.”

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