Britain’s foreign secretary Liz Truss will host European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Thursday for two days of talks aimed at breaking a months-long deadlock over the Northern Ireland protocol.
“There is a deal to be done that protects peace in Northern Ireland, defends our union, and maintains the integrity of the United Kingdom and EU. But it will require a pragmatic approach from the EU. I will be putting forward practical, reasonable solutions starting from these fundamental principles, with a view to agreeing a plan for intensive negotiations,” she said.
“The EU has a clear responsibility to help fix the myriad problems caused by the protocol and protects the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement. As fellow believers in liberty and democracy, we should be capable of reaching an agreement that delivers for Northern Ireland and allows us to unleash the full potential of our relationship”.
The talks at Ms Truss’s grace and favour mansion in Chevening, outside London, will be spread across three sessions on Thursday and Friday. On Thursday evening, the two chief negotiators will have dinner, including “Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and Kent apple pie”.
In a newspaper opinion piece this week, Ms Truss repeated Britain’s threat to suspend parts of the protocol unilaterally by triggering Article 16. But she has told political and business leaders in Northern Ireland that she believes a deal can be done to allow goods to move across the Irish Sea without checks if they are destined to remain in Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has paused his threat to withdraw Ministers from the Executive in protest against the protocol. But he said after meeting Ms Truss in London this week that there must be “imminent progress” in resolving the issues surrounding the agreement.
“This uncertainty is not good for Northern Ireland. We need certainty. We need the government to act. And if the EU are not prepared to agree on what is required, then the government must take that unilateral action,” he said.
During a visit to Co Down on Tuesday, however, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who will also attend the talks at Chevening, refused to set out a time frame or to identify a deadline for a deal.
“I’m not setting arbitrary time frames,” he said.
“Our position hasn’t changed – we need to resolve this in a way that works for the people of Northern Ireland and we want to do that as quickly as possible. We want to do that in a way that is sustainable and can deliver for people.”