LONDON (AP) — The British and Irish governments expressed optimism Thursday that a thorny spat between the U.K. and the European Union over Northern Ireland trade can be resolved, but Ireland’s top diplomat indicated that negotiations were likely to drag on into next year.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the talks over post-Brexit rules for Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member, had not produced a “breakthrough moment.” But neither has there been a breakdown that seemed to loom for months.
“Do I think that all issues can be resolved linked to the (Northern Ireland) protocol by the end of the year? I think that’s a very tall order and unlikely to happen,” Coveney said after a meeting of U.K. and Irish ministers in London.
Under a deal agreed to before Britain’s departure from the EU last year, Northern Ireland remains inside the EU’s tariff-free single market for goods. The provision was designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland – a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.
But it created a new customs border in the Irish Sea for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., even though they are part of the same country. That has brought red tape and supply problems for some businesses, and has angered Northern Ireland’s British Unionists, who say the checks undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. and destabilize the delicate political balance on which peace rests.
The U.K. is seeking major changes to the arrangements and has threatened to use an emergency break clause to suspend parts of the legally binding Brexit divorce agreement, if no solution is found. Using the emergency clause, known as Article 16, would trigger EU retaliation and could spiral into a trade war between the U.K. and the 27-nation bloc.
“Triggering Article 16, in my view, from an EU perspective, will move us into a new space where we don’t want to go because I think that will be a signal that negotiation has failed,” Coveney said.
Britain’s language toward the EU has grown less belligerent in recent weeks, with ministers saying they would prefer to strike a deal rather than act unilaterally.
U.K. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said Thursday he was “an optimist” about the outcome of the talks, which remain snagged over Britain’s insistence that the EU remove its top court from its role in resolving any disputes over the agreement — an idea the bloc flatly rejects.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to come to a positive resolution with the EU. Our focus has got to be about resolving the issues for the people of Northern Ireland,” Lewis told reporters.
Lewis and Coveney declined to confirm a report in the Financial Times that U.S. concerns about the dispute’s impact on Northern Ireland peace had led Washington to drag its feet on lifting tariffs on British steel, something it has done for steel from the EU.
Coveney said the U.S. had played a big role in securing peace in Northern Ireland, “and they watch it closely.”
“It’s not new that there are concerns in Washington in terms of the impact of the sort of polarized politics around the protocol and its implementation on the broader peace process and political stability in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“The U.S. can speak for themselves on that,” he said. “But for us, this is about trying to find accommodation, trying to settle difficult issues for both sides in a way that can allow us to move on and that will continue to be our focus.”
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