The EU has been granted access to a new British database providing real-time information on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, in what has been deemed as a step towards a broader Brexit deal.
The meeting was described as “cordial and constructive” in a joint statement, and it was widely perceived as a significant step towards the improvement of UK-EU relations and the unlocking of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The new deal will allow EU officials to access a live information system detailing goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which remains subject to the bloc’s sanitary and regulatory standards under the current Brexit agreement.
However, the EU’s commitment to protecting the single market has required tougher controls on goods imported from Britain – a move that has infuriated British unionists in Northern Ireland, which fear it would undermine the nation’s place in the UK.
The trade data-sharing system was demonstrated to EU officials last summer and has been working in pilot form in recent months. Its goal is to provide EU staff in Belfast with direct visibility on goods flowing into Northern Ireland’s ports, since early 2021.
A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters the agreement was “an important step forwards”.
Sunak’s spokesperson said: “We are pleased that they are starting to use the system now and are broadly working with the [UK government] to make ongoing improvements”.
The announcement coincided with resumed diplomacy between Northern Ireland unionists and the recently reshuffled Irish government.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson called it “a useful conversation” that reflected his own party’s commitment to increase dialogue with Brussels and Dublin.
“We have an opportunity to get an outcome from these negotiations which replaces the protocol by arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and our constitutional position is respected,” he added.
However, although an agreement has been reached, there are still some aspects under discussion.
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there were “some remaining technical issues” with the UK setup, but that both sides had now agreed on actions to be taken “over the coming days and weeks.”
One of the changes the UK has proposed is a green lane/red lane system for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, where the “green” goods would be those destined only for Northern Ireland, meaning they would not need to be checked and would require only minimal paperwork.
In turn, goods destined to travel onwards to the Republic of Ireland would enter via a red lane, where they would be subject to standard EU controls and checks.
The UK says it has built a system which can do this by drawing together five different databases which deal with aspects such as customs declarations, safety and security declarations and ferry manifests. A meeting has been set up for next week (January 16 2023) to resolve these issues and reach a final solution.
The joint statement also said the agreement on trade data was “a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions.”
The Brexit negotiations had been stuck for months, as a response to former prime minister Boris Johnson’s threat to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, a vital part of the Brexit deal. However, under Rishi Sunak’s premiership, talks seem to have finally resumed.
Both sides are reportedly aiming to resolve the dispute by 10 April, the anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. This is also the deadline that the Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris himself set to call fresh elections for the Northern Ireland assembly.
In addition to the data-sharing discussion, there are several aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol – agreement on customs, plant, animal and food checks and the role of the European court of justice – that reportedly remain unsolved.