UK offers big concession over Northern Ireland trading relations

Boris Johnson’s government has this week offered a significant climbdown in talks with the EU over post-Brexit trading relations in Northern Ireland, as the prime minister tries to end the toxic dispute.

A senior British official on Friday briefed London-based EU journalists that Johnson was no longer seeking the immediate axing of the European Court of Justice from its role in enforcing the so-called Northern Ireland protocol.

In a move described as “an important shift”, the UK official said “no one is demonstrating on the streets of Belfast” in protest against the role of the ECJ.

The protocol is the part of the UK’s Brexit deal that aims to maintain an open border in Ireland. In exchange, some checks on east-west trade across the Irish Sea are needed.

Although Johnson wants to settle the “governance” issue of the protocol in the longer term, EU journalists were briefed that the prime minister wants to focus for now on securing the smooth flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland across the Irish Sea.

“If the negotiations fail it won’t be because the UK is insisting on taking the ECJ out of the protocol,” the official said, adding that London accepted that the European Commission did not have a mandate from member states to discuss the excision of the court from the deal.

According to journalists at the briefing, they had been summoned specifically to report the “shift” in UK government thinking — an olive branch that could help broker a deal with Brussels.

But when accounts of the briefing started to emerge, Downing Street desperately attempted to play down what had been said, fearing it had undermined the negotiating position of Brexit minister Lord David Frost.

A government spokesperson said: “This is an inaccurate characterisation of our position. Any durable solution must address the full range of difficulties created by the protocol, including on the ECJ.”

In spite of that statement, the formal briefing of a group of EU journalists suggests Johnson wants to “park” the ECJ issue to secure a breakthrough in other areas.

Both sides have been talking for weeks about a dramatic reduction of checks on goods at Irish Sea ports, including medicines, animals and foodstuffs, and on reducing customs inspections.

The European Commission on Saturday said the UK had issued 23 licences for French fishing boats, in a further sign of de-escalating tensions.

“Today the UK has issued 18 licences for EU replacement vessels in the UK territorial waters and five licences for EU vessels to access Jersey waters,” the commission said in a statement. “Further technical consultations will continue with the aim to have seven additional replacement vessels licensed by the end of Monday.”

While the commission described the move as an “important step” towards seeking full implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, they noted that a “number” of boats seeking access to UK waters had not been granted a licence.

A UK government spokesperson said: “Throughout this process, the UK’s approach has been evidence-based and in line with our commitments under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. We have licensed vessels where sufficient evidence has been provided that demonstrates that a vessel qualifies for access under the TCA.”

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Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe

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