DUBLIN, Feb 21 (Reuters) – The European Union’s Brexit chief said on Tuesday the finish line was in sight for talks on post-Brexit trade rules relief for Northern Ireland ahead of a second straight day of discussions with his British counterparts.
After weeks of intense talks between London and Brussels, momentum has been building towards a deal to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol – the arrangements agreed to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland when Britain leaves the EU in 2020.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told his cabinet that intensive talks were continuing, his spokesman said, as his foreign and Northern Ireland ministers prepared to speak with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic later on Tuesday.
“We have made good progress (..) We can clearly see the finish line. But in such a negotiation, being close does not mean being finished,” Sefcovic said at a press conference, refusing to say when exactly an agreement could be reached.
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Ireland’s prime minister said the two sides had made progress and Sunak should be given time to finalize a deal.
“I can’t say whether we’ll get an agreement this week or not. I know a lot of progress has been made in terms of agreeing the protocol,” Leo Varadkar told a news briefing in Dublin.
“I know Prime Minister Sunak wants to consult with his party, wants to consult with the parties in Northern Ireland, and I think it’s very important that we give some time and space for that to happen and avoid comments that could make the more difficult it is for this to be agreed.”
Talks have stepped up a gear in recent days, including between Sunak and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose opposition to the protocol must be overcome for a deal to work.
While opinion polls consistently show a majority of Northern Irish voters – who previously opposed Brexit – favor the idea of the protocol, the introduction of controls on goods coming from the rest of the UK has angered many pro-British trade unionists who see it as undermining. union with Great Britain.
The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party, has boycotted the region’s devolved power-sharing parliament for the past year in protest against the protocol.
Sunak has also met with pro-Brexit Conservatives to ease their concerns about a possible deal.
Reporting by Conor Humphries and Padraic Halpin in Dublin, Andrew MacAskill in London and Tassilo Hummel Editing by William James, Ed Osmond and Bernadette Baum
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