Almost two years after the UK left the EU, UK and EU Brexit negotiators have started new talks in Brussels to find a compromise on Northern Ireland.
Should they fail to find a common solution to the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK has threatened to suspend the post-Brexit trade agreement in its province.
This would almost certainly result in EU retaliation and possibly a trade war.
“Obviously there is still a pretty big loophole. And we have to work through that, ”said British chief negotiator David Frost when he came to lunch with his EU colleague Maros Sefcovic.
The European Commission has put forward proposals to cut red tape between the UK and Northern Ireland, but under the protocol that is part of the binding divorce agreement between the EU and the UK. She wants a deal by Christmas.
Britain wants the treaty to be replaced by a new agreement, despite the fact that it was negotiated by Frost himself and willingly signed by Boris Johnson’s government.
Brussels has offered to drastically reduce both paperwork and controls on goods sent from the UK to Northern Ireland as the area remains subject to EU rules under the Protocol.
These have been welcomed by businesses in Northern Ireland and the UK government, but both London and the province’s largest party, the Democratic Unionists, say the move is not enough.
The UK is also insisting that the EU relinquish final legal oversight of all disputes over trade with Northern Ireland through its highest court and instead submit them to independent arbitration, something the bloc of 27 nations flatly opposes.
The role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is clearly defined in the protocol. But Sefcovic, who visited Northern Ireland again on Thursday, says he barely heard the problem raised by the companies there.
Fish could also be pushed onto the menu in Brussels as French fishermen threaten to block ports for viewing this as British duplicity on licenses.
France has announced that it will take “retaliatory measures” as early as next week if the UK stops granting French fishermen licenses, Paris warned. This could include reducing electricity supplies to Jersey, the Channel Island that depends on the UK.
The post-Brexit trade agreement stipulates that European fishing boats should be granted licenses to continue operating in certain UK waters if they can demonstrate that they worked there before Brexit. But the French and British argue about the type and amount of evidence required.