The Environment Secretary said there are “positive indications” that a truce will be reached in the “sausage war” trade dispute with the European Union (EU) over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The UK has applied for an extension to a grace period allowing chilled meats to continue being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland after the end of this month, when the current arrangements are due to expire.
Downing Street told reporters on Wednesday it had received no reply to its formal request for an extension and that work between the two sides was “ongoing”.
However, Cabinet minister George Eustice signalled that talks with Brussels on a Protocol grace period for chilled meats were heading in the right direction.
Mr Eustice told LBC Radio: “I think we are getting some positive indications and it’s always our view that it’s better if we can reach agreement with the European Union on these things.
“It didn’t make any sense to simply say that there’s a ban on the sale of sausages to Northern Ireland, we’re still in dialogue with the European Union about some longer-term solutions on the wider issues around export health certificates.
“While those are ongoing, I think it makes sense for them, just for a few more months, to leave the current arrangement we have in place.”
The UK Government and the EU are locked in a dispute over the implementation of the Protocol, the part of the Brexit divorce deal aimed at avoiding a hard border with Ireland.
The agreement keeps Northern Ireland in the single market to avoid a land border but unionists have expressed fears the Protocol is separating the region from the rest of the UK, with it effectively drawing a border down the Irish Sea.
Suppliers in Great Britain are said to have become reluctant to export goods into Northern Ireland due to the increase in paperwork post-Brexit while supermarkets have warned of decreasing choice on their shelves as they struggle to get hold of products since the Protocol came into force in January.
The UK has threatened to unilaterally suspend parts of the deal if it continues to cause problems – something that would trigger a retaliation by Brussels.
One of the impacts of the deal is that deliveries of chilled meats – including sausages and burgers – could be effectively banned from crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland at the end of the month if there is no continuation of the grace period.
The EU’s ambassador to the UK said it was “encouraging” that London had requested an extension rather than act unilaterally, as it had done previously, in a possible sign that relations were becoming “more constructive” since the divorce.
Giving evidence to the Lords European Affairs Committee, Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels was turning its “regulations upside down to try and find a solution” to issues with the implementation of the Protocol.
As a way round the current so-called sausage wars, he argued the UK could temporarily follow EU rules on fresh food products until infrastructure solutions, such as advances in technology, are available to avoid checks in Northern Ireland.
“We made a proposal to the United Kingdom, as you know, to have an encompassing SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) veterinary agreement that in our calculation will move away 80% of the controls,” Mr Vale de Almeida told peers on Thursday.
“We even said that, in an exceptional way, we are willing to consider this agreement as being a temporary one because we understand on the British side the intention of negotiating and eventually agreeing free trade areas with other countries, that may imply some change in your own sanitary stance.
“What is the advantage of this kind of agreement? It would not only remove the checks at the border but also allow time for the infrastructure that is needed in Northern Ireland to be built.”