The European Commission has warned that the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit divorce settlement remains the only way to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic.
Late-night talks between the commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and Brexit minister Lord Frost aimed at resolving differences over the implementation of the protocol broke up without an agreement.
In a statement, a UK Government spokesman said that while there had been “some positive momentum”, a number of “difficult issues” remain to be resolved.
Both sides agreed there should be further “intensified contacts” in the coming weeks.
The protocol has been blamed as a factor behind a recent upsurge in violence in loyalist areas amid concerns in those communities that it potentially weakens their place in the United Kingdom.
Under its terms – designed to prevent the return of a hard border – Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods, meaning that products coming from the rest of the UK are subject to border controls.
Unionist politicians have been calling for it to be scrapped, but in a statement following the meeting, the commission insisted that it was the only way to maintain an open border with Ireland in line with the Good Friday peace agreement.
“The vice-president reiterated the EU’s commitment to the protocol, which is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and to preserve peace and stability, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market,” it said.
“Only joint solutions, agreed in the joint bodies established by the Withdrawal Agreement, can provide the stability and predictability that is needed in Northern Ireland.”
It said the EU’s legal action against the UK for unilaterally extending a series of “grace periods” in the protocol – intended to ease its implementation – would continue for “as long as necessary”.
A UK Government spokesman said that in the talks, Lord Frost had reiterated the UK’s commitment to working through the joint bodies provided for by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
“He underlined that any solutions had to be consistent with the overriding commitment to respecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions and to ensuring minimum disruption of everyday lives in Northern Ireland,” the spokesman said.
The commission statement provoked an angry response from DUP deputy leader Lord Dodds who accused the EU of adopting a “legalistic and rigid approach” to the concerns over the protocol.
“It is clear from these remarks that the EU is simply focused on protecting its own interests rather than securing long-term answers which benefit communities and businesses across our province,” he said in a statement.
“The Government must respond to this belligerence in a strategic and decisive way.
“Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market must be restored and the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom protected.”