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LONDON — Brexit talks are back for a third act that will likely last years, but the hope is that warmer personal chemistry between the two main characters will keep the plot moving.
That might be optimistic given the bad blood that has festered since the U.K. finally exited EU rules at the end of 2020 — notably over the Northern Ireland protocol, a key part of the deal that the European Commission came close to suspending last month in a bid to prevent vaccine supplies leaving the bloc. But officials insist that the relationship between Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and his opposite number Maroš Šefčovič is significantly warmer than that between their predecessors David Frost and Michel Barnier.
“Their personal relationship has always been good,” a Whitehall official said. “They get on well, but that doesn’t mean they inherently agree on a way through. [Šefčovič] is constructive and solution-orientated, but certainly not a pushover.”
“Gove and Šefčovič have a lot of respect for each other,” an EU official added. “They want to genuinely find a solution.”
The pair will meet in person for a crunch summit in London on Thursday afternoon to discuss the most toxic plot line of the season so far — how to iron out the Northern Ireland border problems. Gove admitted to MPs last week that these were more than just “teething problems” and acknowledged a rise in community tensions. Šefčovič will stay the night in London and travel back to Brussels in the morning, meaning that the talks could continue over a working dinner into the evening.
Gove has demanded tweaks to the trade rules on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to deal with border disruption, and he wants waivers on post-Brexit checks to be extended for nearly two years.
That may be pushing it, but officials on the U.K. side view Šefčovič as someone they can do business with, in contrast to Barnier, who London frequently criticized as taking a robotic approach to the talks. The former Slovak diplomat is well-liked in London and is thought to be pragmatic and focused on doing the best for citizens on both sides. Awkwardly for him, he has his own deadline extension request — on the time limit for ratification of the Christmas Eve deal on the EU side.
But the EU27 are pushing Šefčovič not to be too accommodating to the Brits. At a breakfast with EU ambassadors on Tuesday, Šefčovič was reminded that EU capitals liked Barnier’s approach to the Brexit talks — holding firm to EU lines and shifting position on when he had the backing of national capitals. They urged him to take a similar tack, according to another EU official.
The meeting in London is not expected to end in a significant breakthrough, but will get the political ball rolling on a vital issue that the U.K. sees as crucial to protecting stability in Northern Ireland. “It will be an important meeting in terms of the clearing of the air,” said one EU27 ambassador. “It won’t be a formal meeting of the joint committee, but more a frank discussion — where do we go from here?”
The talks will focus on the letter Gove sent to Šefčovič earlier this month detailing complaints with the protocol, as new red tape continues to prompt anger among traders and amid threats to staff working at the Irish Sea border.
Gove said grace periods that allow lighter enforcement of EU rules over supermarket goods, pharmaceuticals, chilled meats and parcels heading from Great Britain into Northern Ireland should now be extended to January 2023, while permanent solutions are found to issues. Some of the waivers are due to come to an end at the close of March, raising fears about further border disruption.
He also called for a new deal between the U.K. and Ireland on pet travel; “flexibilities” on the movement of seed potatoes and other plant products; and the mutual recognition of qualifications.
Šefčovič offered a tough response to Gove on the eve of the meeting, with a letter of his own rejecting calls for tweaks to the protocol operations, at least until the U.K. complies fully with existing rules.
He pointed to a number of areas where Britain was falling short. He added that “blanket derogations” on customs processes for meat products, export health certificates and parcels “cannot be agreed beyond what the protocol foresees already,” while flexibility on seed potatoes and other plant products would entail the U.K. aligning with EU rules.
The U.K. side hopes simple tweaks can be made that allow trade to run more smoothly but keep the Northern Ireland protocol as it is, but Britain is not prescriptive about what the specific solutions are. The joint committee has the power to make changes to the Northern Ireland protocol if needed, although doing so would be more difficult and controversial. The view in Whitehall is that solutions could be Northern Ireland-specific, involve a bilateral agreement between the U.K. and Ireland, or a wider agreement between the U.K. and EU about third-country arrangements.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has called for the protocol to be scrapped, in order to pull Northern Ireland out of the orbit of EU trade rules, but fundamental changes to the protocol are seen by ministers as a last resort. “We do not want to go there if we can possibly avoid it,” Gove told a House of Lords committee this week. “We believe there are ways of working with the Commission in order to resolve the very real issues that exist on the ground.”
There are worries in the DUP that the friendship between Gove and Šefčovič might be a roadblock to the reform the unionists are demanding. “I suspect that the good relations between Gove and the head of the joint committee are because Gove is too accommodating to him and therefore will not push the issues,” said DUP MP and Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson.
He said the asks from Gove would “allow the present chaos to continue” and predicted a “stalemate” after the meeting or at best “crumbs” from the EU.
UPDATE: This article was updated to include details of Maroš Šefčovič’s letter to Michael Gove.
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