EU and UK officials have set the end of February as the unofficial deadline for reaching agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol, amid anxiety that the long–running talks could disrupt the campaign for the Northern Ireland assembly elections.
On Thursday, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič briefed members of the European Parliament’s UK coordination group on the latest state of talks. While the EU has been keen not to set a hard deadline for the talks, sources indicate that he reported that neither the EU or UK government want the talks to overlap with the election campaign.
Šefčovič met with UK Foreign Secretary and new Brexit negotiator Liz Truss at her country residence last week and is understood to have told MEPs that he was encouraged by the optimistic tone of the talks.
Nonetheless, the Commissioner expressed frustration at Truss’s demands to overhaul state aid rules for Northern Ireland and that the UK will not accept any customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
Speaking in the Parliament on Wednesday, Šefčovič told MEPs that the UK were “our neighbours, our allies, and I think all of us in this House would like to see them again as our strategic partners.”
“For that to happen, we need to rebuild the trust, and trust is built by respecting our Agreements – the Agreements which were recently signed and ratified – be it on Withdrawal, be it on Trade and Cooperation, or be it the proper implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland,” he added.
The next elections to the devolved Northern Ireland assembly will take place in May, and campaigning will start in earnest in early March.
The dynamics of the debate on the protocol could well change following the May elections. The Irish republican party Sinn Fein currently tops opinion polls on both sides of the Irish border, and is in poll position to claim the First Minister post as head of the Northern Ireland government.
The latest polls put Sinn Fein on 24% of the vote, while the Democratic Unionist Party, currently the largest in the Northern Ireland assembly, is in second place on 18%.
However, should a deal on the protocol not be reached by March, businesses in and trading with Northern Ireland will likely be stuck in limbo for at least six months as negotiations on the next Executive are likely to take several months.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the two largest parties representing the nationalist and unionist communities must be equal partners in the devolved government. However, attitudes towards the protocol are divided.
Sinn Fein, the moderate nationalist SDLP, and the Alliance party all support the protocol, while the pro–British unionist parties, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist parties, have been highly critical of it, and are publicly campaigning for the protocol to be scrapped.
Some are urging the DUP to boycott a government led by Sinn Fein.