There has been excited chatter in recent days that a breakthrough on the Northern Ireland Protocol could be imminent. Last week, the UK government and Brussels agreed a new technical arrangement on sharing trade data, which was heralded as a ‘new basis’ for talks, following a meeting between EU chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic, and James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary. Since then, there has been speculation that the two sides could enter the ‘tunnel’ – the intensive end stage of negotiations – as soon as this week. There is a desire on both sides to find an agreement on changes to the Protocol could ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, today Downing Street urged caution – with No. 10 declaring that there are ‘still significant gaps’ between the two sides, so it is unlikely talks will go ‘into the tunnel’ any time soon. It comes as Sefcovic and Cleverly – along with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris – met over video link to discuss the remaining challenges, agreeing to continue in a ‘constructive and collaborative spirit’. It’s still possible for things to move more quickly than Downing Street is letting on; both sides are trying to give out as little information as possible on the state of play so as not to impact any progress. But there’s another reason that Rishi Sunak would be wise to tread carefully when it comes to finalising any agreement: the groups he needs to win approval from.
The biggest concern both among the DUP and members of the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers is the role of the European Court of Justice, with the UK arguing for an independent arbitrator to govern trade between the two sides.