Hopes are increasing for a solution to the Northern Ireland protocol stalemate, as Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney prepared to meet his UK counterpart James Cleverly.
The two are to hold a video call this afternoon, before a working dinner in London on Friday aimed at moving towards solutions “in a practical way”, said Coveney.
“Both sides have agreed to engage this week, for the first time since mid-February,” he told reporters. “The mood music has changed quite fundamentally.”
The Guardian reports that Coveney is also set to meet Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, who apologised to Ireland and the EU this week for the behaviour of the Brexit camp during earlier negotiations.
Meanwhile, prime minister Liz Truss is set to attend a meeting of the newly formed European Political Community where she will meet European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.
Sources say Truss “wants a deal” and is keen to get the Northern Ireland issue dealt with to allow her to tackle other challenges.
The DUP has blocked the functioning of Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly and governing executive because it believes the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.
If devolution is not restored by 28 October, Heaton-Harris is obliged to set a date for a fresh Stormont election.
According to the BBC, the UK and EU have a “conceptual agreement” that goods from Great Britain which are entering Northern Ireland and are staying there should be treated with a lighter touch.
However, they have still to settle on what this means in practical terms on the ground.
EU talks timetable
RTE reports that video talks between EU and UK officials on the protocol could begin today with face-to-face talks later.
It is understood the timetable would run over “a couple of months”, with a mix of political and technical talks tackled each week, including customs, agri-food checks, governance and other issues.
The first issues to be tackled include competition rules and energy, it is understood.
Cleverly and the EU’s Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic could also meet for intensive talks within a fortnight, the Times reports.
Deal to be done
Sources on both sides claim all parties are in “deal-making mode”, with a renewed willingness to compromise to avoid a trade war.
The UK is understood to be prepared to give ground on its insistence that the European Court of Justice has no role in policing the protocol, while the EU has indicated it could move on the checking of goods and the ban on certain products entering Northern Ireland.
The Times claims Heaton-Harris is likely to legislate to extend the 28 October deadline for a fresh Stormont election, with a new deadline linked to the latest talks.
President Biden’s spring visit to Northern Ireland for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement is also putting pressure on both sides to reach a deal.