Ministers could shelve proposed legislation that would allow the UK to unilaterally break some of its Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland as a sign of goodwill in negotiations with the EU, the Guardian has been told.
EU and UK negotiators hope to be able to enter the “tunnel” phase of negotiations next week. This phase, which involves intense negotiations with no public comment, is likely to be timed after a meeting between UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Monday.
A senior EU source said there was an understanding that the bill would not progress while negotiations were at a crucial stage, although a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) source denied the bill had been put on hold.
In a sign of some move, the UK government said on Friday it would further delay the call of elections in Northern Ireland to give Brexit negotiations a chance. However, senior EU sources said only “slow progress” had been made, with both sides warning that there were still significant differences.
Spokesman Rishi Sunaka said on Friday: “It remains that there are outstanding issues that need to be agreed, but our ambition remains to try to reach an agreement as soon as possible.”
Both sides welcomed an agreement last week on data sharing and EU access to UK information systems as a key step in resolving the protocol dispute. However, important outstanding issues remain, most notably the UK’s demand that the European Court of Justice should play no role in the disputes.
However, both sides are pushing for a deal to be reached by April ahead of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Good Friday Agreement, which US President Joe Biden hopes to attend. But Washington made it clear that attendance was conditional on reaching an agreement.
Labor leader Keir Starmer urged Sunak to defy the “cult of Brexit purity” by eurosceptics within the Conservative Party to resolve the protocol deadlock in Northern Ireland in a speech in Belfast on Friday.
The protocol bill, which was the brainchild of Liz Truss when she was foreign secretary, would allow the UK to unilaterally annul part of the Brexit treaty. Rejecting the bill would be a goodwill gesture if the two sides move closer to an agreement on the protocol in the coming weeks.
The draft protocol awaits the report stage in the House of Lords, where no work is currently underway. It’s not scheduled to come ahead of peers for at least the next three weeks. Two other high-ranking sources said there were discussions within the government about the progress of the bill and that there were now doubts as to whether it was legally sound.
Government sources strongly denied that the formal legal advice was changed by Attorney General Victoria Prentis, although other people close to the negotiations said she was checking the legality of the bill. They said Prentis did not contradict the earlier advice of its predecessor, Suella Braverman, although they admitted that they preferred to resolve the situation through ongoing negotiations.
Attorney General’s Office A spokesperson said: “By long-standing convention, reflected in the Ministerial Code, whether law enforcement officers have been asked to provide legal advice, and the content of any advice is not disclosed outside of government without their express consent. This permission is rarely given.”
A UK government legal source said business would be conducted with thorough and honest legal advice at all times. A significant number of international law experts questioned Braverman’s initial legal advice that unilateral action was necessary given the gravity of the situation in Northern Ireland.