The UK and the EU have reached an agreement on access to a new British database providing real-time information on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, in the first sign of progress in talks over the controversial Brexit protocol.
The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, described a meeting in London today as “cordial and constructive” in a joint statement.
They said the agreement was a “critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance” and “provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions”. The pact may also herald a new eagerness by the prime minister to rebuild UK-EU relations, which were strained under Boris Johnson.
Talks aimed at finding a solution to the question of the Northern Ireland protocol reopened in September after the appointment of Liz Truss as prime minister and continued when Rishi Sunak succeeded her in Downing Street.
Today’s meeting was the second between Cleverly and Šefčovič in the past month. Both sides are aiming to resolve the dispute by 10 April, the anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
“While a range of critical issues need to be resolved … an agreement was reached today on the way forward regarding the specific question of the EU’s access to UK IT systems,” they said in the joint statement.
In a sign of the intensification of talks, Ireland’s foreign minister, Micheál Martin, will meet Šefčovič in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the progress.
EU diplomats are briefing that discussions could go beyond 10 April, but there is a pressure to develop “contours of a deal” by 19 January, the deadline that the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, who also attended the meeting, set himself to call fresh elections for the Northern Ireland assembly.
But there are concerns that both sides still have serious differences to reconcile. An EU official cautioned that other issues – agreement on customs, plant, animal and food checks, and the role of the European court of justice – were still unsolved.
EU sources played down the significance of reaching an agreement ahead of the 25th anniversary, saying the EU had never put emphasis on hard deadlines, although it hoped for an agreement as soon as possible.
The dispute between the UK and the EU centres on two key issues: checks on goods and the role of the European court of justice in the event of disputes. The UK has proposed a “green channel” at ports allowing goods remaining in Northern Ireland to be waved through without any customs paperwork, with a red channel for lorries destined for the Republic of Ireland.
It believes the paperwork suppliers complete for ferry or plane operators gives the EU enough data and would weed out smugglers if complemented by trusted trader schemes and fines for noncompliance.
The EU has proposed a similar “express lane”, but with UK suppliers continuing to complete customs paperwork.
It argues that it needs this to help analyse what goods, for example, go to factories for the production of goods being sold in the single market.