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MNI: EU-UK Edge Closer To Post-Brexit Northern Ireland Deal

EU officials see increasing UK willingness to accept a temporary deal on phytosanitary standards.

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There should be a clearer picture by early next month of the likelihood of a deal to resolve problems that have dogged the first months of operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, EU officials said, pointing to increasing willingness by the UK to consider a temporary agreement to facilitate cross-border movements of agricultural products.

"By the end of the month or beginning of June we should have a clearer sense of how big the points of commonality are and how big points of divergence are," one official in Brussels said.

A major topic remains the UK's objection to implementing dynamic alignment in phyto-sanitary standards as set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol, which until now London has argued might constrain its efforts to negotiate other trade agreements around the world.

"We all know how long trade deals will take to negotiate and ratify, and then enter into force - perhaps that does create a window in which would be possible to have alignment," the official said. "If we do get that kind of message from the UK for a four-year period or however long that is something we would look at with great interest."

FLEXIBLE SOLUTIONS

The UK is said to favour more of an equivalence approach in phytosanitary standards and has mooted that the EU's agreement with New Zealand could provide a template. But an EU official said that such an approach would only reduce and not eliminate the need for a border and noted that the New Zealand agreement covered only a limited range of agricultural products.

"So far we haven't received a request to that effect, but if it came in we'd consider it of course," an official said.

EU officials say they are focused on finding flexible solutions amid talk of an improved atmosphere in EU-UK talks on how to implement the overall Brexit agreement and resolve outstanding differences. They see room for agreement on many topics by the Joint Partnership Council and other joint EU-UK committees due to start meeting before the summer break.

One senior EU diplomat said that tension-easing solutions were within reach in 24 out of 27 areas under negotiation.

"We are now in a phase where we will start to implement the TCA (the Trade and Cooperation Agreement) through the bodies we have set up," the source said.

But some EU officials are warning that room for negotiation remains narrow in some sectors by the decision of the UK to have a more "distant" relationship from the EU as it pursues a "global Britain" strategy.

"There is now an improved atmosphere between the EU and UK in the discussions but that needs to be sustained … specifically, we need clear timelines and commitments from the UK on how the Protocol will be implemented," an EU official said.