Brexit minister Lord Frost has said “significant” gaps still remain following his latest talks with the European Commission on the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Following a video conference call with commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, Lord Frost said they would speak again next week while their teams will have intensified talks in the coming days.
In a statement, he confirmed the UK remained ready to trigger Article 16 – suspending some of the arrangements in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – if a settlement cannot be found.
“I made clear that the UK still wanted to find a negotiated solution if that was possible and was ready to keep working constructively and intensively to that end,” he said.
“Nevertheless the gap between our positions is still significant and progress on many issues has been quite limited.
“Our position remains as before: that the threshold has been met to use Article 16 safeguards in order to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, if solutions cannot be found.”
The UK is pressing for an easing of checks on goods moving from mainland Great Britain to Northern Ireland under the protocol, arguing they are damaging business and straining community relations.
‘What the government once called teething problems have now become a chronic condition’
EU citizens and other non-Irish or non-British nationals who cross the border from the republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland will have to get pre-clearance under new rules being proposed by the UK government.
They will require a US-style waiver known as an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) to cross the border as part of the new post-Brexit immigration nationality and borders bill.
The scheme is expected to come into force in 2025 but has already been denounced as “unworkable” on the Irish border, where thousands of people commute in both directions for schools, work and shopping.
Stephen Farry, an Alliance party MP, said it would create “new bureaucracy” and “legal uncertainty” for ordinary people going about their daily business, while the campaigner Emma DeSouza said the move was “absolutely wild” and would represent a “hardening of the border”.
The immigration minister Kevin Foster told the House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee that the ETA would be a simple authorisation, obtained online, and would, like the US Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) last multiple years.
Asked if the UK would be checking paperwork at the border, he said: “Absolutely not”.
“We don’t operate routine immigration controls through the common travel area,” he said referring to unique rules and laws that allow British and Irish nationals to live, work, study or retire in each other’s country without immigration controls.
“We anticipate this will be a fairly simple process. When the US ESTA originally launched you could fill it in at the airport and fly an hour or two later.
“I don’t want to perhaps get that type of guarantee yet, but we’re certainly looking at how we can make a simplified process as quick and simple,” Foster added.
The issue of post-Brexit borders creates particular problems in Ireland where EU nationals still enjoy freedom of movement rights, which means they do not need visas to live or work south of the border.
The 5.2 million EU citizens and their families who have been granted pre-settled or settled status in the UK who holiday on the island of Ireland will not be impacted.
Foster said any non-Irish or non-British national who did not have the right to be in the UK visa-free would “probably get used to the idea that they need to apply for something in terms of [travel into] the UK”.
He said he was very “conscious” of the special circumstances that applied around the Irish border and that “enforcement of it will be proportionate”.
This is not the first time the issue of Northern Ireland being used as a “back door” to immigration to the UK has arisen.
Before Brexit, police on both sides of the border coordinated control of non-EU immigration abuse of the common travel area through a joint scheme known as Operation Gull.
Data is not published but records shared with an Irish politician showed that in 2017, almost 800 individuals trying to get into Britain via Northern Ireland were stopped in one year.
Post-Brexit, EU nationals living in Ireland entering the UK via Northern Ireland would not be required to show passports as there was no airline liability on these internal routes, said Foster.
This would not, however, mean they could circumvent post-Brexit rules on work or residency rights as the Home Office’s “compliant environment” would “kick in”, he said, which requires employers and landlords to check their rights.
Any idea what their nationalities were?
An EU deadline for the UK to grant licences to dozens of French boats in a post-Brexit fishing row has passed without an agreement being announced.
There had been suggestions on Friday that negotiations over fishing licences for small French boats in British waters could lead to a breakthrough but sources said there was no announcement expected from the UK government as the midnight deadline came and went.
France had threatened to push the European Union for legal action and trade restrictions against the UK if there was not a “sign of goodwill” in the fishing row in time for a Friday deadline set by Brussels.
The European Commission had said it expected the dispute to be resolved by midnight.
The UK and Jersey governments have issued further licences to French fishing boats to trawl British waters in an apparent attempt to ease cross-Channel tensions.
The Brussels-imposed deadline of midnight on Friday into Saturday for solving a post-Brexit fishing row passed without an agreement being announced.
However, the UK Government has since confirmed that talks on Friday evening between Environment Secretary George Eustice and Virginijus Sinkevicius from the European Commission following “several weeks of intensive technical discussions on licensing”, resulted in more small boat licences being granted.
In a statement, a spokeswoman said 18 more licences had been granted to replacement vessels that had been able to present “new evidence” of having previously fished British grounds, with seven more boats under consideration.
Jersey has granted permanent licences to an additional five vessels, she said.
France has quietly dropped its threat of a trade war over post-Brexit access to fishing waters after the UK and Channel Islands governments agreed to issue 83 more operating licences before an EU deadline.
The offer did not fully meet the demands of Emmanuel Macron’s government but Brussels and Paris signalled their satisfaction after a period of increasingly bellicose rhetoric.
It remains to be seen, however, whether French fishing communities will accept the decisions, with threats issued in recent days of a pre-Christmas blockade of UK goods entering Calais.
On Sunday, the EU commissioner for fishing, Virginijus Sinkevičius, thanked the UK for “respecting” the 10 December deadline by which Paris had demanded additional licences to small boats seeking to fish in the coastal waters of the UK and Jersey and Guernsey, British Crown dependencies.
He said: “I think it was a very important step achieved last night and I’m thankful to the UK that they respected a deadline that we set by 10 December
“The two weeks were very intensive, we’ve managed to bring over 80 additional licences now. The [European] Commission together with the French authorities, we will examine every single application to see if there is sufficient sufficient data provided to gain licences. The UK always stated that they keep the doors open. So if there is a case, of course, the commission together with the French authorities will examine those possibilities.”
Annick Girardin, the French ministers for the seas, said her government would seek to assist those fishers who had not been successful.
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