Talks have taken place about Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements amid warnings from MEPs the breakdown in trust could derail the trade agreement struck between the UK and European Union.
Brexit minister Lord Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic discussed the problems around the Northern Ireland Protocol at a dinner in Brussels.
The meeting came just hours after two influential European Parliament committees backed the UK-EU trade deal but expressed concern about the breakdown in relations over Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the protocol, designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland, Northern Ireland remained part of the single market for goods, meaning products arriving from Great Britain face EU import regulations.
The UK enraged Brussels by unilaterally extending grace periods covering areas of the economy to help retailers in Northern Ireland struggling with supplies, meaning post-Brexit checks are not yet fully applied.
The protocol has been blamed as a factor behind the recent upsurge in violence in loyalist areas amid concerns in those communities that it has weakened their place in the UK by erecting barriers to trade with Great Britain.
The arrangements formed part of the Withdrawal Agreement, the Brexit divorce deal under which the UK left the bloc at the end of January 2020.
The UK and European Union subsequently signed the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) on Christmas Eve, setting out the trading arrangements which came into effect on January 1 this year.
But the TCA has not yet been formally ratified and group leaders in the European Parliament have refused to set a date for a final vote because of their concerns over Boris Johnson’s stance on the earlier agreement.
The TCA’s provisional application is only due to continue until the end of April and the UK side has repeatedly stressed it expects the EU to complete its processes by then.
That came a step closer on Thursday when MEPs on the European Parliament’s trade and foreign affairs committees gave their consent to the deal.
Andreas Schieder, who led the European Parliament foreign affairs committee’s work on the UK-EU deal, said: “Brexit is a historic mistake, but now we need to establish a strong fundament for future relations.”
However “all progress could be lost, if the UK continues to unilaterally breach the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol on Northern Ireland”, he warned.
Christophe Hansen, from the trade committee, said backing the agreement would mean “expanding our arsenal of legal tools and leverage to continue pressing for a full and pragmatic implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and its protocol”.
A UK government spokesman said: “We have agreed to extend the deadline for the EU to ratify the deal to 30 April and we expect them to complete their processes to this timeline.”