Brexit: Progress and process

The EU Commission will continue its legal action against the UK over its unilateral action on the Northern Ireland Protocol but away from the spotlight, the European Parliament has moved closer to ratifying the EU-UK trade deal.

As intensive talks were underway in London in mid-April over implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, MEPs in Brussels moved a step closer to ratifying the trade deal which has been provisionally implemented since January.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney TD was in London on the 14 April for a series of meetings with British cabinet ministers to discuss the management of the Protocol and the impact of its implementation.

Coveney’s visit to London coincided with a meeting between European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and UK Minister for EU relations, David Frost, in Brussels, with the pair seeking to keep communication open over differences around the implementation of the Protocol.

Both parties described the informal meeting as positive, with Šefčovič stating that officials had been given a “political steer” for discussions to intensify in the coming weeks.

However, while a statement from the UK also described a “constructive atmosphere” and the establishment of positive momentum, the spokesperson added: “But a number of difficult issues remained, and it was important to continue to discuss them. [Mr Frost] agreed there should be intensified contacts at all levels in the coming weeks.”

Despite the positive development, Šefčovič has indicated that the EU will pursue legal proceedings against the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods for the Irish Sea border.

In early March 2021, Frost announced the extension of grace periods for goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, set to end in March, until October. However, he failed to consult the EU’s Šefčovič on the move. Despite attempts to play down the move, pointing to “operational reasons”, Šefčovič said the move amounted to “a violation of the relevant substantive provisions” of the Protocol.

Brussels has said it is ready to find “swift, pragmatic solutions” within the framework, something Coveney has repeatedly stressed. “We need to talk seriously about how the Protocol is being managed, how it can be implemented in a way that listens to the concerns many in Northern Ireland have and what flexibilities are possible,” he said in London.

While the Protocol, as part of the 2019 divorce treaty, is legally separate from the EU-UK trade deal, the two have been consistently linked politically. Earlier this year, the European Parliament paused the ratification process of the trade deal in response to the UK’s grace period extension.

However, it would appear that MEPs are now more contented with progress in the negotiations over the Protocol and could soon move to officially ratify the trade deal.

In mid-April, the EU’s foreign affairs and trade committees backed the trade and cooperation agreement by 108 votes to one, a move which paves the way for a future final ratification vote by the assembly.

MEPs waited to be briefed on Šefčovič’s meeting with Frost before setting a date for a final ratification vote, but Parliament faces an end of April deadline to either extend the provisional application of the agreement or ratify the agreement in full to avoid the trade deal ceasing to apply and a revert to WTO terms.

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