Ireland Says A Post-Brexit Trade Resolution This Year Is A "Very Tall Order"
The UK and the European Union reaching an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol before 2022 is a "very tall order" and "unlikely to happen," Ireland's foreign minister has said.
Remarks by Simon Coveney on Thursday are the latest sign that talks over how to implement post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland will continue over Christmas and into 2022.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who spoke alongside Coveney at a press conference in Westminster, refused to put a timetable on the negotiations when asked by reporters.
Until a few weeks ago it was believed that by the end of November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson would suspend parts of the protocol by triggering Article 16 — a move that would further escalate tensions with Brussels.
However, a recent change in tone from Lord Frost, the UK's chief Brexit negotiator, has led figures in the EU to believe the UK has gone off the idea of triggering Article 16.
The UK invoking Article 16 would likely trigger trade retaliation from the EU. PoliticsHome recently reported that government officials were thought to be very worried about the impact this would have on supply chains in the UK in the run-up to the busy Christmas period.
Coveney, who spoke alongside Ireland's justice minister Helen McEntee, said he had a "good and direct" conversation with Lord Frost about the state of Northern Ireland Protocol talks on Wednesday, but that there hadn't been a "breakthrough moment" in negotiations up to now.
Pouring cold water over the chances of a deal before Christmas, he added: "Do I think that all issues can be resolved before the end of the year? That's a very tall order and unlikely to happen."
The Irish minister urged the UK to spend "less time" discussing triggering Article 16, warning that doing so would take the UK, Ireland and the EU "into a new space where we don't want to go".
"That would be a signal that negotation has failed, at least in this round," Coveney continued.
"An outcome based on negotiation in the coming weeks and months will be far preferable to a much more negative, and I suspect adversarial space, which is not where we need to go."
Lewis, who represented the UK government with junior Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, insisted the reason Article 16 had not yet been invoked, despite a belief that the conditions for doing so have been met since the summer, was simply because "we don't want to".
"Ultimately, my position — as is the position of David [Lord Frost] and the Prime Minister — is an agreed solution between us and the EU is the best way forward," Lewis said.
"But there are substantive gaps between us, and if we need to use Article 16 to move things forward, then we will have to do that. We don't want to and hopefully we can get a positive solution through the discussions."
Frost and his EU counterpart, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, will hold their latest weekly meeting on the state of negotiations tomorrow. The two sides are currently focused on agreeing solutions for the movement of medicine from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
UK sources were today playing down the chances of a major breakthrough in that meeting, however, with the stalemate between London and Brussels expected to continue.
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