Foreign secretary Liz Truss has insisted there is a “deal to be done” with the European Union over the post-Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland, as both London and Brussels agreed to intensify talks.
The apparent thaw in relations comes after Ms Truss’ first official face-to-face talks with Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president, over the Northern Ireland Protocol at her official residence at Chevening, in Kent.
The pair have agreed to hold further talks on 24 January, with officials also due to meet again next week for “intensified talks”.
But Ms Truss again refused to rule out the prospect of invoking Article 16, which would suspend part of the agreements in the protocol, if they could not agree a way forward. At the weekend she insisted she would be “willing” to do so if talks failed.
“We have had constructive talks with the EU,” she told reporters. “We are now going into intensive negotiations to work towards a negotiated solution to sort out these very real issues for the people of Northern Ireland”.
“I think there is a deal to be done. I want to make progress. Clearly if we don’t make sufficient progress we will have to look at the alternatives, but my absolute desire is to get a deal that works for the people of Northern Ireland”.
In a joint statement, Ms Truss and Mr Sefcovic added: “The meeting took place in a cordial atmosphere. They agreed that officials would meet next week in intensified talks and that the principles would meet again on 24 January.
“We share a desire for a positive relationship between the EU and the UK underpinned by our shared belief in freedom and democracy”.
The foreign secretary was handed the responsibility for negotiations with Brussels after the surprise departure of the Brexit minister Lord Frost, who has been vocal in his criticism of Boris Johnson’s Covid measures in recent days.
A source at the Foreign Office stressed that the UK government warned to get issues surrounding the Protocol — the post-Brexit agreement with Brussels — “sorted” so that the important UK-EU relationship can focus on tackling “big external threats like Russia” and wider defence of shared values.
Going forward, talks would now be aimed “squarely” on “defending peace and stability in Northern Ireland” and protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, they said.
Still, they added that the EU will need to be “more pragmatic”, but in their view there was now a deal “to be done” following further intensive discussions next week.