Gaps remain but EU and UK will continue to work for potential protocol solutions

Gaps remain between the European Union and the British government over the resolution of the protocol dispute, but both sides vowed yesterday to continue “extensive work” in an effort to break the impasse.

Virtual talks between European Commission Vice President Marus Sepkovic and British Foreign Secretary James Smart ended without any significant movement — a stark contrast to last week’s progress, best illustrated by an agreement to share trade data and a flurry of diplomatic activity.

There was speculation ahead of the afternoon meeting, which was also attended by Foreign Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, that the two sides were moving towards a breakthrough. However, a joint statement issued afterwards simply assured that the search for “potential solutions” would continue.

Downing Street said there were “still gaps”, while DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson described the difference in thinking as “significant”.

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The joint statement said “a range of existing challenges” were discussed, along with “the need to find solutions together”.

It was agreed that any solution was needed to “comprehensively address the real concerns” in the northern communities, while protecting both the region’s place in the UK’s internal market and the integrity of the EU’s single market.

“They agreed that this scoping work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit, with careful consideration of each other’s legitimate interests,” it said.

Last night it was unclear when the next scheduled meeting would take place.

Tanaiste Michal Martin welcomed what he called “continued positive engagement”, and said that the two sides are working “together constructively to find common solutions”.

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Before yesterday’s meeting ended, the British Prime Minister’s official spokesman Rishi Sonk said that “there are still gaps in our position that need to be resolved in order to address the set of problems created by the protocol.”

In a conversation with the Palestinian Authority’s news agency, another official in the British government said: “No one should be under any illusions that it is complex and difficult, but it seems that the desire to work together on a solution exists.”

In a statement, Sir Geoffrey said there was “a long way to go”.

“We reminded both sides that progress has only ever been made in Northern Ireland when supported by both Unionists and Nationalists.”

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The Lagan Valley MP said this was “not the time for plastering”.

“The time has come for serious negotiations that will deal with the fundamental problem,” he said.

Ulster EU leader Doug Beattie said the EU-UK statement was “much lower” than many expected.

“I urge both the UK government and the EU not to be tempted to agree a deal just to end the negotiations, but to focus on spending time finding an agreement that provides long-term solutions to the range of problems caused by Northern Ireland. Protocol,” he said.

“Northern Ireland’s place with the United Kingdom’s internal market must be restored and protected – plastering solutions won’t cut it.”

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