By William James
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain and the European Union are at an impasse over changes to parts of the Brexit deal governing trade with Northern Ireland, Britain’s Europe minister James Cleverly told a parliamentary committee on Thursday.
The two sides have been trying for months to overcome a deadlock over the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the trading rules for the British region that London agreed before it left the EU but now says are unworkable.
Britain’s EU withdrawal pact effectively left Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market and customs union given its open border with EU member Ireland, though in so doing raised some barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
“We have come to something of an impasse, and I don’t think that’s through a lack of goodwill, and I think it’s more through what we regard in the UK as an overly limited (EU) negotiating mandate,” he said.
The government argues the deal in its current form is causing friction to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, and in turn threatening the 1998 peace agreement that mostly ended three decades of sectarian violence in the province.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Britain’s lead negotiator with the EU on the protocol, said on Twitter she had spoken to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic and that the British government’s top priority would always be to protect that peace agreement.
“I was clear that the NI Protocol is not working,” she said.
Britain has previously argued it has grounds to trigger a clause in the deal allowing parts of the Brexit treaty to be abandoned – a move that could badly damage an already fragile diplomatic and economic relationship with the EU.
Perceptions that the protocol erodes Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom has sparked anger in pro-British communities, helping fuel some street violence last year.
The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the region’s largest pro-British party, urged London on Thursday to act unilaterally if talks on overhauling the protocol are not rapidly completed.
Jeffrey Donaldson told Reuters that the protocol must be replaced and not tinkered with around the edges. A new government will not be formed in Northern Ireland after May 5 elections until it is sorted, he added.
A majority in Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum that resulted in a national 52%-48% margin in favour of leaving the bloc.
Cleverly said he still hoped to reach a negotiated deal with the EU. He declined to comment on media reports that the government was preparing legislation that would unilaterally overrule parts of the Brexit deal.
But, he did say that pressure to find a way forward was mounting and Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been clear on the need to look at ways to alleviate the tension caused by the current arrangements.
“We’re looking at a range of options about what we can do to ease these tensions,” Cleverly said.
(Reporting by William James; additional reporting by Amanda Ferguson in Belfast and Kylie MacLellan in London; editing by Kate Holton, Mark Heinrich and Toby Chopra)