Britain’s foreign secretary was in Brussels on Friday for talks with the European Union’s Brexit negotiator as expectations build that a deal over the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol could be announced early next week.
Both James Cleverly and Maroš Šefčovič described their meeting as “constructive” in tweets issued in the early afternoon.
The EU negotiator added that there is “good progress” and that “hard work continues.”
Asked about whether the meeting is a sign a deal is near, a spokesperson for the European Commission only said that “there have been very regular meetings between Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and his UK counterparts. So today is another meeting in this series.”
The two men met in London on 9 January during which they struck a data-sharing deal allowing the EU access to the UK’s IP systems for trade data. They described it then as a “critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance, and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions.”
“They are meeting once again in the context of the negotiations, which have never stopped since that meeting,” the Commission’s chief spokesperson, Eric Mamer, added on Friday.
But the meeting in Brussels was followed by a special COREPER gathering during which Šefčovič briefed EU ambassadors on the state of play on the negotiations, fuelling expectations a deal is near.
It also comes as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak travelled to Northern Ireland on Friday morning to meet with leaders of political parties.
Mary Lou McDonald, president of the republican Sinn Féin party, said there is “welcome progress” on the Northern Ireland Protocol following her meeting with Sunak.
“No hard border, protection of the Good Friday Agreement, access to the single market must be maintained. Keep what works, fix what doesn’t,” she added.
Northern Ireland has been without a working government since the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) pulled out of the power-sharing agreement over concerns about the Protocol.
Under the agreement, Northern Ireland remained part of the EU’s Customs Union in order to avoid the creation of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland but this has created a de-facto border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland which the DUP and the British government have decried.
It is believed the agreement that could be announced next week will be about the creation of so-called green and red lanes to alleviate customs requirements for goods travelling from Great Britain and intended to stay within Northern Ireland. Brussels had previously said this would only be possible if it could get real-time trade data from the UK.
However, it is unlikely to cover all the remaining issues that have beset the full implementation of the Protocol including the role of the European Court of Justice. Brussels wants the ECJ to take the lead for dispute resolution going forward which London firmly rejects.
Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are meanwhile scheduled to meet on Saturday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
Von der Leyen, her spokesperson said, “is in Munich to discuss Ukraine and security issues. And this is going to be the focus of her discussions with the various leaders”
“Of course, when she meets Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, they will certainly also address the state of play of the ongoing discussions on the new Ireland Northern Ireland protocol. But that’s all I can tell you at this stage,” Mamer also said.