Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and the European Commission’s vice president have reiterated their “full commitment” to the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol following talks in London.
A joint statement said Mr Gove and Maros Sefcovic had a “frank but constructive discussion” on Thursday evening, in which they agreed to “spare no effort” in implementing solutions.
The two politicians agreed to convene the joint committee tasked with implementation of the protocol no later than February 24 to provide “the necessary political steer”.
The protocol requires regulatory and customs checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but it has caused disruption to trade since it came into force on January 1, with various grace periods in operation.
Unionists in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned about the arrangements, insisting they have driven an economic wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
They have called on the UK to trigger a mechanism within the protocol – Article 16 – which enables the Government to unilaterally suspend aspects it deems are causing economic, societal or environmental problems.
The statement said the two sides had agreed to find “workable solutions on the ground” and are set to further engage with business groups in Northern Ireland.
Both Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic also reiterated their “full commitment” to the Good Friday Agreement, and impacting as “little as possible” on those living in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, according to the joint statement.
Following the meeting, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney described it as a “good day’s work” and said the focus was now on cooperation between the EU and UK to implement the Protocol.
“We continue to listen & do what we can to support businesses in NI,” he said on Twitter.
It comes after Stormont’s First Minister Arlene Foster said that more rigorous implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is “not going to work”.
The DUP leader, who is campaigning to scrap the post-Brexit trade agreement, said Northern Ireland should not be used as a political football.
Unionist demands for Article 16 have intensified since the EU briefly triggered the mechanism itself, though swiftly backtracked on the move, amid its efforts to restrict the export of Covid vaccines out of the bloc.
Earlier on Thursday, Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheal Martin said both sides “need to dial down the rhetoric” on the protocol and said there were bound to be teething issues.
Speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland, he said people needed to bear in mind that it is only about six weeks since the Brexit deal was agreed.
Last week, Mr Gove wrote to Mr Sefcovic asking for an extension of a series of grace periods that are currently in operation that limit the level of bureaucracy associated with the protocol.
The Government wants to extend these grace periods, some of which are due to expire at the end of March, to January 2023 in order to provide space to find permanent solutions.
In reply, Mr Sefcovic said there is an urgent need to “fully and faithfully” implement the protocol as a prerequisite before the UK’s requests for further facilitations are “necessary and justified”.