Senior European Union officials have said the EU is ready to intensify talks towards a deal on future trade ties with the UK after a meeting to discuss the existing Brexit agreement.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said that Britain had much work to do to honour commitments on the island of Ireland.
He said contacts would “significantly intensify”, with a view to another such meeting in mid-November.
However, British Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the EU must change its approach to trade talks with the UK if it wants to restart negotiations.
Repeating the British government’s calls for the EU to talk about legal texts, Mr Gove told parliament that trade negotiations had ended after the 15 October deadline that Prime Minister Boris Johnson set.
Mr Gove said the EU had refused to discuss legal texts of a draft trade deal.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier then tweeted that the bloc was available to intensify talks in London this week “on all subjects, and based on legal texts”.
Mr Gove described the statement as constructive.
“It is the case that my colleague David Frost was in conversation with Michel Barnier and I believe it is the case that Michel Barnier has agreed both to the intensification of talks and also […] to working on legal texts,” he said.
Mr Gove said the EU must be serious about talking intensively about all issues if a trade deal is to be struck with Britain which cannot accept the bloc’s proposals on fishing and state aid.
“We cannot accept the negotiators’ proposals which would require us to provide full, permanent access to our fishing waters, with quotas substantially unchanged to those that were imposed by EU membership,” Mr Gove said.
“We can’t operate a state aid system which is essentially the same as the EU’s, with great discretion given to the EU to retaliate against us,” he added.
Mr Sefcovic told RTÉ News that both sides were “absolutely committed” to ensuring the Good Friday Agreement was maintained.
“For that we need to take a lot of very important technical steps. This morning we showed the constructive spirit and we will redouble our efforts, intensify the frequency of discussions between now and mid-November, when I hope we can meet Chancellor [of the Duchy of Lancaster] Gove again.
However, he said the EU still regarded the Internal Market Bill as contrary to international law.
He told RTÉ News: “We consider it a breach of international law and [that it] went against the letter and spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement, which we signed and ratified, both of us.
“I’m constantly repeating the fact that we have a Joint Committee to solve these kinds of problems. I hope that we can demonstrate we are able to find a solution for this very complex issue and when we find them then I hope and expect that the very controversial parts of the Internal Market Bill will be withdrawn,” he said.
Earlier, Downing Street had said that if no trade deal is in place by the end of the year, then the UK will not seek further negotiations in 2021.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “We have been repeatedly clear that any agreement needs to be in place before the end of the transition period and we will not be back to negotiate further next year.
“We must provide certainty to our citizens and businesses, and endless prolonged negotiations won’t achieve this.”
Downing Street said the EU would have to change its stance for negotiations on post-Brexit trade to resume.
Mr Barnier and the UK’s negotiator David Frost spoke this afternoon.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “If the EU change their position then we will be willing to talk to them but they must be ready to discuss the detailed legal text of a treaty in all areas.”
Meanwhile, RTÉ News understands the EU is seeking to have 15 customs and veterinary staff working alongside UK officials at Northern ports and Belfast Airport to ensure the proper implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In return, the EU would drop an earlier request to have a physical office in Belfast.
The issue was raised during a meeting this morning of the EU-UK Joint Committee, which officials have described as positive and constructive.
One official cautiously described the encounter in London as a potential “turning point” in the process of both sides having to agree how to implement the Protocol, which provides for customs and regulatory formalities on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain, will work.
The meeting was led by Mr Sefcovic and Mr Gove. Representatives of the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive were also attending virtually.
It is understood both sides also made progress on the issue of citizens’ rights, both for EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa. The teams adopted a Joint Report on citizens’ rights which will be published in the coming days.
RTÉ News understands that Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic agreed an intensified schedule of meetings, and that the technical Specialised Committee would meet twice before the more high level Joint Committee meets again in mid-November.
Both men have agreed to speak before and after each meeting of the Specialised Committee.
Senior sources said Mr Gove promised an open approach to updating the EU side on the construction of Border Control Posts (BCPs), required to facilitate EU controls on live animals, goods of animal origin and food consignments entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
Work also advanced on ensuring that Northern traders had the correct VAT numbers and IT system in order to be able to plug into the EU’s VAT system for goods.
It is understood Mr Sefcovic stressed to his opposite number the importance of EU technical officials being able to monitor the work of UK officials in implementing checks and controls.
This would amount to some 15 EU staff being able to work alongside their UK counterparts, and to have access to the UK’s customs and veterinary database in the process.
Senior sources say the EU side stressed that they understood UK sensitivities around sovereignty, and that they would not insist on a physical EU office in Belfast, with a flag and name plate.
However, they would expect the EU officials to be resident in Northern Ireland.
Both sides are thought to have discussed the questions of whether or not goods moving from Northern Ireland to Britain would require exit summary declarations, and how supermarket consignments from Britain to Northern Ireland would be handled in terms of customs and regulatory checks.
Sources say both sides have looked at ways to compromise on these issues, and that engagement would intensify, especially the role of the European Commission’s customs and taxation division.
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