Brexit: EU and UK announce first breakthrough in months in Northern Ireland negotiations | International

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Rishi Sunak's government seems determined that the Northern Ireland Protocol —the main source of tension between London and Brussels since Brexit became a reality— is not an added headache in a year marked by recession, inflation , strikes and the cost of living crisis. The British Foreign Minister, James Cleverly, and the Vice-President of the European Commission and main negotiator with Downing Street, Maros Sefcovic, met again in London this Monday, to then announce, in a joint statement, the first progress in months in the contentious negotiations over the Northern Ireland lace in the post-Brexit era. It had been a long time since these kinds of meetings always concluded with separate communiqués.

"While there are still a wide range of key issues that need to be resolved to find a way forward, today we have reached an agreement regarding EU access to UK digital customs information systems," the statement said. "This agreement was a fundamental prerequisite to build mutual trust, offer security guarantees and be able to provide a new basis on which to resume discussions between the EU and the United Kingdom," both parties have assured.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was the text attached to the Withdrawal Agreement of the United Kingdom from the EU, with the same validity as an international treaty, and which was key to unraveling extremely complicated negotiations. As the Republic of Ireland is a member of the EU, after Brexit it became the real border between the community institutions and the British territory, of which Northern Ireland is a part. The solution to protect the internal market ―and avoid a hard border in the middle of the island―, agreed and signed by the Government of Boris Johnson, consisted of keeping Northern Ireland within that community space.

What seemed like the perfect solution became, due to Downing Street's lack of will and efficiency, a double economic and political problem. Economic, because the bureaucratic, customs and phytosanitary obstacles imposed on companies that exported their products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland —the United Kingdom is officially made up of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland— caused scarcity and shortages of supply. It was the so-called "sausage war", in reference to a product so typical of the British diet. And political, because the unionist community felt betrayed from the beginning by the agreement, which they interpreted as a new betrayal by London that left them even more alone.

Street violence revived in the Protestant neighborhoods of Belfast and Londonderry, and unionist parties, especially the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) were determined to boycott the common institutions of government that the Good Friday Peace Agreement had imposed on Catholics and Protestants. Since last May, when the Sinn Féin republicans won a historic victory in the Northern Irish regional elections, both Parliament and the Government have not yet been constituted.

On the path of legality

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The prime minister before Sunak, Liz Truss, again opted for the path of defiance of the EU, to please the hard wing of the Conservative Party. She initiated the processing in Parliament of a new law that sought to unilaterally annul much of the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The irritation of Brussels, which responded with its own legal measures, pointed to a period of freezing in the negotiations, if not a possible trade war.

Sunak, an early defender of Brexit, but with a more pragmatic than fanatical spirit when it comes to tackling economic problems, has chosen to avoid direct confrontation with Brussels. He will now have to convince the party's eurosceptics and Northern Irish unionists that the solution he intends to build is best for all.

The EU has been demanding, all this time, direct and prompt access to customs information on all goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. To date, London has resisted imposing the need for a customs declaration and phytosanitary controls on companies that move their merchandise between the two islands. The reality, as much as it hurt the eurosceptics, was that Johnson had signed, in order to carry out at all costs his longed for Brexit, a border de facto in the Irish Sea that split the United Kingdom in two. By developing a digital information system on goods in progress, and allowing Brussels access to its content, London sends a double message that the EU has welcomed: any solution depends on respecting the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol , and is committed to protecting both the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of the EU's internal market.

Both Cleverly and Sefcovic have instructed their respective teams to accelerate the search for solutions to the various technical challenges posed by the protocol, "within the renewed understanding" that has emerged from a "cordial and constructive" meeting. Both have been summoned to see their faces again on January 16.

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