Foreign secretary James Cleverly will resume talks with his European Commission counterpart Maros Sefcovic as speculation mounts that London and Brussels could be nearing a breakthrough on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Cleverly and Mr Sefcovic, the EU commission’s vice-president, will hold a video call to try to iron out issues with post-Brexit trade arrangements affecting Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Expectation about a deal has grown, with suggestions that cross-Channel relations have improved since Rishi Sunak became PM and hopes a “political declaration” could emerge this week.
The announcement last week that a deal had been reached on sharing real-time data on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was seen as a step towards an overall resolution.
However, a UK government source said the negotiations were proving “complex and difficult” but said there was a “desire to work together” to reach an agreement.
Irish MEP Barry Andrews told Times Radio on Sunday that there was an “expectation” that a “political declaration” could emerge out of the Cleverly-Sefcovic talks on Monday.
“Not an internationally binding agreement, but a political declaration and framework for the way forward,” said the Fianna Fail politician. “We had some positive announcements last week… and generally I think there’s been a build-up of trust between the parties.”
But a UK government source played down talk that the two sides were ready to enter the “tunnel” of final political negotiations.
“We’d all prefer a negotiated solution but significant gaps remain. It is the conversations with the Commission that will either bring that about or not,” they said. “Nobody should be under any illusions that this is complex and difficult, but the desire to work together on a solution seems to be there.”
The role the European Court of Justice in overseeing protocol disputes remains one of the biggest bones of contention. The two sides are thought to be waiting to see if enough progress had been forged on the technical side of trade issues, before trying to hammer out a compromise on the powers of the court.
Talk of pushing through the Northern Ireland Protocol bill — heavily criticised by the EU for the way it would unilaterally override parts of the treaty signed by former PM Boris Johnson — has grown quieter in recent months.
The Sunak government is said to be willing to shelves the controversial bill that would hand UK ministers the power to unilaterally override protocol checks in an effort to reach a compromise deal.
Labour said signs of progress were “promising” after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged Mr Sunak to ignore the “purity cult” Euroceptic right of his party to secure a protocol pact with Brussels.
Alongside the UK-EU talks, Labour will send a delegation to Derry to meet business leaders and learn about how the protocol has affected Northern Ireland trade.
The trip will see shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle and shadow Cabinet Office minister Baroness Chapman visit Foyle Port, a gateway that handles two million tonnes of cargo a year.
Party officials said they were going to “see first-hand how red tape from the Conservatives’ deal and ongoing uncertainty are affecting trade”.
The protocol was agreed to in 2019 by Mr Johnson as a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock.
In order to avoid a hard border in Ireland, it moved customs and food safety checks and processes to the Irish Sea, creating economic and administrative barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The protocol is vehemently opposed by many unionists and the DUP is blocking the functioning of a devolved government in Stormont in protest at the arrangements.
Mr Lammy said: “Recent signs of progress on the protocol are promising – Rishi Sunak must press on and stand up to the ERG hardliners before this window of opportunity closes.”
“With a UK government showing determination, diplomatic skill and hard work, and flexibility on both sides, the problems with the protocol are resolvable,” the Labour frontbencher added.
“If the government can reach a deal that delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland, the Labour party stands ready to do what it takes to get it over the line.”