Rishi Sunak is understood to have sent Downing Street’s national security adviser to Brussels in a bid to reach a compromise deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sir Tim Barrow has been tasked with helping the UK reach an agreement with the EU, as negotiations intensify on easing trade checks and finding a suitable role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The prime minister is keen for Sir Tim to made use of his “extensive network” of EU contacts to forge a breakthrough, according to the Sunday Times.
The Tory government has been keen to replace the ECJ’s role in overseeing protocol disputes with an independent body – but is said to be willing to accept the European court as the ultimate arbiter.
The UK is considering an agreement for a system that would put the ECJ “at arm’s length” for disputes, would still have the power to hand down judgments, according to the Sunday Telegraph.
Tory MPs in the European Research Group (ERG) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remain staunchly opposed to any role for the European court – warning that they would not accept any “fudge” from Mr Sunak.
“The ultimate test of any deal will be whether it ends Northern Ireland’s semi-colonial status as a client of the EU, automatically accepting EU laws without any input from elected representatives,” wrote Tory MP David Jones and DUP.
In a joint article in the Sunday Telegraph that warned that they would not accept any deal that fails to “resolve the root cause of those checks, namely the fact that Northern Ireland is trapped in EU single market rules”.
The pair added: “Unionist politicians won’t accept it. It will be a failure in statecraft of historic proportions.”
It comes as Ireland’s premier Leo Varadkar expressed regret that the protocol was imposed on the region without the support of unionists.
Mr Varadkar said the EU was willing to be “flexible” and “reasonable” in negotiations with the UK to achieve “broader support” within Northern Ireland for the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
But the Taoiseach said in economic terms, the protocol was broadly working – the Northern Ireland “outperforming” the UK economy.
“There’s no hard border between north and south, the single market’s integrity has been protected, the Northern Ireland economy is outperforming the UK economy,” he said.
Mr Varadkar, who became Taoiseach for a second time in December, said the prospect of London and Brussels striking a deal before the landmark anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement in April was “very real”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has discussed protocol impasse Mr Varadkar at a meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
EU politicians said at Davos that they would prefer Sir Keir to become prime minister at the next general election.
Austrian MEP Andreas Schieder said the Labour leader could rebuild trust, telling the i: “I’ve met Starmer and I can see he would be much better.”
MEP Guy Verhofstadt, the former Brexit co-ordinator in the European parliament , said: “What the Western world needs now is to come together around precisely the areas Starmer mentions: science, technology, research, security, foreign affairs.”
But he also criticised the Labour leader’s move to rule out single market membership. “As long as Starmer continues to rule out re-joining the single market and the EU itself, Britain will be poorer off, as is the EU,” said Mr Verhofstadt.