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Cleverly and Sefcovic set for face-to-face talks on NI Protocol dispute

Foreign secretary James Cleverly arrives in Downing Street, London, ahead of a Cabinet meeting. Pic by Stefan Rousseau

By David Young and David Hughes, PA

The Foreign Secretary is set for face-to-face talks with a senior EU diplomat as London and Brussels look to intensify efforts to resolve the logjam over post-Brexit trade.

James Cleverly will hold talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels on Thursday about the impasse over the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Foreign Office and European Commission confirmed the scheduling of the meeting.

A commission spokesman said it was part of the “ongoing engagement” between the senior politicians on the trading arrangements that have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The ongoing dispute over the protocol is intrinsically linked to the current political instability in Northern Ireland.

The region’s largest unionist party, the DUP, is blocking the functioning of the powersharing institutions at Stormont in protest at the protocol, claiming the arrangements have undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.

The party has insisted it will not allow the formation of a ministerial executive in Belfast until radical changes to the protocol are delivered.

The UK Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol it agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.

While it has expressed hope of reaching a negotiated settlement with Brussels, the Government is also progressing contentious legislation at Westminster that would empower ministers to unilaterally scrap the bulk of the arrangements without EU approval.

The latter course of action could prompt retaliatory action from the European Commission.

Both the UK and EU are keen to resolve the dispute before next year’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.

On Tuesday, Mr Cleverly said the tone of his regular discussions with Mr Sefcovic were “positive” and “there is now an understanding that the concerns that we have raised, and that have been raised particularly by the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, are not confected but real, and that any agreement would need to address them”.

While the Foreign Secretary and Mr Sefcovic are meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has invited the leaders of the main Stormont parties to take part in discussions in Belfast on the powersharing impasse.

Commenting on the state of the engagement between the EU and UK on the protocol, Mr Heaton-Harris told MPs on Wednesday: “I really, truly believe there is landing zone that has been identified by all parties to aim for.”

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