Hopes of a breakthrough in Brexit talks have been dashed, as Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has warned that the UK faces “tough challenges” ahead. Mr Cleverly denied recent reports that the UK and the EU are “not worlds apart” when it comes to fixing the issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, saying he doesn’t “want people to run away with the idea that we are just on the cusp of some amazing breakthrough”.
Tory MP Bob Seely asked Mr Cleverly: “When Mr Sefcovic was here addressing the UK/EU partnership assembly… he was being fairly robust that the protocol has to be adhered to.
“It’s been said you’re not “worlds apart” – that seems to me quite a big world apart if he feels that the full ambit of the protocol should be applied, so I’m a little bit concerned – how close are you in real terms?”
Giving evidence at the European Scrutiny Committee, the Foreign Secretary responded: “So this is what I keep saying, I’ve seen reports which both Maros Sefcovic and I look at and say, according to this third party reporting we are literally about to kiss and sign.
“And we’re both looking at each other saying, that’s not where we think we currently are.
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“So I think your assessment is right, I think the list of challenges – I don’t think it’s a very long list – but they are tough challenges.”
He added: “I’m just trying to make sure we manage expectations.
“I don’t want people to be defeatist but I also don’t want people to run away with the idea that we are just on the cusp of some amazing breakthrough that was there all the time, if only we had looked a little bit harder.
“There are some real challenges which need to be overcome.”
He said the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which will remove key parts of the protocol such as the need for checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, is “not a motherhood and apple pie bill”, warning that it will face “tough challenges”.
But Mr Cleverly also said that tensions between the UK and the EU have “calmed” since Britain first left the bloc.
Last week, outgoing EU ambassador to the UK João Vale de Almeida claimed that the EU and UK are “not that far apart” on post-Brexit legislation.
He said the “mood music” between the UK and the EU has changed, meaning they are more likely to reach an agreement over the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Vale de Almeida said he felt “encouraged” by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s early meetings with EU leaders, saying that an agreement would transform relations.
The UK has been locked in talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol – which was agreed upon as part of the withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border in Ireland post-Brexit – since October 2021.
It allows Northern Ireland to remain within the EU’s single market for goods but it has faced criticism because a border was effectively created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland down the Irish Sea.
The border has led to delays, supermarket shortages and increased costs for businesses in Northern Ireland.
The Government plans to remove key parts of the protocol, such as the need for checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.