The European Union is expected on Friday to signal to new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that his government must resolve the long-running dispute over Northern Ireland, EU diplomats said.
The row revolves around the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit divorce deal, that keeps the British province largely in the EU single market. This requires checks on some goods moving there from the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is meant to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland to preserve a 1998 peace deal ending sectarian violence, but has placed another boundary in the Irish Sea, angering pro-British unionists.
Since Sunak became prime minister three weeks ago, he has announced agreements to cooperate with EU members, including with France to tackle illegal migrants and on an EU project to facilitate swift movement of troops across Europe.
“There is a willingness from both sides… to engage positively,” an EU diplomat said, but added that the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol remained.
“We hear a lot of optimistic talk coming from London, but this hasn’t translated yet to a more constructive approach to the negotiations,” said another EU diplomat.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, who oversees post-Brexit issues, will brief national ministers on Friday about EU-UK relations for the first time in two months.
Britain’s decision to delay Northern Ireland assembly elections until at least March has provided a window of opportunity for EU-UK talks.
There was a similar positive mood when Liz Truss took charge of Brexit affairs as foreign minister at the end of 2021. However, talks ended in February as Northern Ireland headed for elections. Technical talks between experts only restarted in October.
Planned British legislation to unilaterally override part of the protocol continues its passage through parliament.
“There is some optimism because of the sounds coming from London, but we have to maintain a certain wariness,” said a third EU diplomat.