The UK and EU have reached a crucial breakthrough over a customs deal for products destined for Northern Ireland, according to a report in the Times.
Brussels has accepted a plan that would avoid the need for routine checks on products going into the region.
The bloc has also reportedly conceded ground on the role of the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) in the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, apparently agreeing that it will only rule on cases referred to it by Northern Irish courts.
Both sides are also said to be finalising details of an accord on veterinary checks, although a British government source told Reuters that no agreement had yet been reached and discussions were ongoing.
Under the reported terms, the customs agreement largely follows the UK’s proposals for a system of green and red lanes, where goods destined for Northern Ireland would be allowed into the region without routine checks, while goods for onward export into the Republic of Ireland would undergo customs formalities north of the border.
Data on vehicle movements would be shared with the EU and the UK would agree to investigate suspicious activity.
Negotiations will require a separate long-term agreement covering exports of meat, live animals and other produce to Northern Ireland, with the UK agreeing to uphold EU veterinary standards on goods exported to the province.
A briefing of EU diplomats in Brussels was told on Tuesday that “real difficulties persist” and all the outstanding areas of discussion were still under review, including VAT rules, customs, state aid, the ECJ, and operation of red and green lanes.
‘Back the deal’
Former Conservative party leader William Hague called on sceptical MPs from his party to be “ready to back a deal” over the protocol “rather than “insisting on a perfect outcome”.
Labour MP Hilary Benn, co-convenor of the UK Trade and Business Commission, said the latest reports “suggest that both the EU and the UK are showing the flexibility needed in the interests of getting a deal”.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak is said to be facing a big test of his authority over whether he can sell the deal to Northern Ireland unionist politicians and Eurosceptic Tory MPs, reports the FT.
Tory Eurosceptics warned they would not accept any deal that left the ECJ with any role in UK territory.
Both EU and UK administrations are keen to reach an agreement on the trading arrangements before the 25th anniversary the historic Good Friday peace agreement on 10 April.