Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen have insisted they will work together to find a solution to the row over Northern Ireland protocol, as pressure mounts to break the diplomatic deadlock.
In a call on Thursday, the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission discussed post-Brexit trade deals in Northern Ireland.
The lack of progress on the issue has caused major political turmoil in recent months, with the DUP blocking a return to power-sharing in Stormont, the devolved parliament, over its opposition to the protocol.
Read more: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
The DUP says the protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK by creating economic barriers to trade entering the region from Britain.
The UK and the EU agreed to the mechanism after Brexit to avoid the introduction of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
However, it has effectively placed a border in the Irish Sea as Northern Ireland has to comply with certain EU import/export rules, while goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland North are subject to a tariff if they “risk” being moved to the EU afterwards.
Attempts by the UK to replace the protocol with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill have put Downing Street on a collision course with Brussels who says it would be a violation of international law.
However, relations have improved in recent months and on Thursday a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke to European Commission President Von der Leyen this afternoon.
“On the Northern Ireland Protocol, they agreed on the importance of working together to agree a solution.”
It’s not the first time they’ve made such a promise – with the pair agreeing to work together when they met at COP27 in November.
The call comes less than a week after Mr Sunak visited Belfast, when he promised to work “fully” to restore power-sharing and find a solution to the protocol.
However, writing in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, former DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed the parties had been “almost uninformed” of the visit and accused the Prime Minister of lacking passion for the union.
Meanwhile, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) have called on the government to re-examine how trade with Europe can be improved, two years after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck a deal.
Business leaders are ‘banging their heads’
The trade organization has warned that Brexit does not help its members to develop or increase their sales, in the latest criticism of the economic impact of the UK’s departure from the EU.
Last month, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said Brexit had caused a “significant negative impact” on trade volumes and trade relations between UK and EU businesses, while many economists said that it was partly for blame for recent tax hikes aimed at filling the UK’s £54billion fiscal black hole.
Shevaun Haviland, chief executive of the BCC, called for an “honest dialogue” on improving trade relations between the UK and the EU.
“Businesses feel like they are banging their heads against a brick wall because nothing has been done to help them, almost two years after the initial ATT agreement.
“The longer the current problems go unchecked, the more EU traders go elsewhere and the greater the damage,” she said.
Rishi Sunak says he is working ‘hard’ to restore power sharing in Stormont
Among a number of proposals, the body calls for an additional agreement with the EU that could eliminate or reduce the complexity of food exports for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as a Norwegian-style agreement that would exempt small businesses the obligation to have a tax representative for VAT in the EU.
The BCC, echoing the concerns of other business groups, also urged the government to reach an agreement on the ongoing dispute over the protocol.
“Always more” the government could do
Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Mark Spencer earlier told Times Radio that there was “always more” the government could do to reduce trade frictions.
“Of course we can always do more to try to ease the passage of trade. We are very keen to do that,” Spencer said when asked about the BCC’s concerns.
He said the UK had made progress, citing an increase in the number of seasonal worker visas available in the horticulture industry next year.
Hilary Benn, Labor MP and co-chair of the UK Trade and Business Affairs Commission, called on the government to prioritize facilitating trade flows between UK and EU businesses.
“Since Brexit, UK businesses have been grappling with new red tape, costs and bureaucratic customs checks,” he said.
“As it is in the throes of a cost of living crisis, it is imperative that the government now prioritize facilitating trade with Europe by removing the barriers created by their unworkable deal.”