UK and EU fail to break impasse over Irish Sea border

Joint committee reiterates commitment to Northern Ireland protocol despite problems with supply chains

EU and UK leaders have failed to break the impasse over the controversial Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland after more than two hours of talks.

However, the two sides have pledged to reach a “pragmatic solution”, with the UK agreeing to develop new plans to respond to problems with supermarket supplies.

The Democratic Unionist party leader and first minister, Arlene Foster, accused Brussels of being “stubborn and inflexible” and said it had “closed its eyes to the serious crisis within our supply chain”.

In a joint statement after the meeting of the UK-EU joint committee, the co-chairs, Michael Gove and the European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, reiterated their commitment to the Northern Ireland protocol and vowed to find solutions to problems caused by the new controls on trade across the Irish Sea.

They also pledged “further joint engagement with business groups and other stakeholders” in Northern Ireland and agreed that the UK could develop a new plan to tackle the issue of supermarket supplies and invest in digital solutions for traders.

The summit took place amid mounting pressure on the EU and the UK from local businesses and civic leaders to soften the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The UK has asked for a two-year extension to all grace periods for checks including those on food, parcels, plants and medicines.

However, there was no breakthrough on the issue with Foster, who attended the meeting, telling the BBC the EU was “tone deaf” to concerns of unionists over checks that have led to shortages in supermarkets and a ban on plants and trees going from Britain to the region.

But the deputy first minister, the Sinn Féin Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill, who was also at the meeting, described talks as “constructive and pragmatic” with both sides agreeing to work on solutions.

Gove and Šefčovič said: “The UK and the EU underlined their shared commitment to giving effect to those solutions agreed through the joint committee on 17 December 2020, without delay. The UK noted that it would provide a new operational plan with respect to supermarkets and their suppliers, alongside additional investment in digital solutions for traders in accordance with the protocol.”

They added: “Noting the need for ongoing engagement and the shared desire to act at pace, the UK and EU agreed that a further joint committee would be held to provide further steers and where appropriate approvals, and would liaise on timings.”

Contributor

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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