A meeting of the EU-UK body overseeing the NI Brexit deal to resolve issues with the Irish Sea border was “hugely disappointing,” First Minister Arlene Foster has said.
But Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the meeting had been “constructive and pragmatic.”
No breakthrough was reached on requests by the UK to extend grace periods.
The grace periods mean checks and controls on goods going from GB to NI are not fully implemented.
The first of the grace periods, which covers food and parcels, is due to end in April.
With the support of business groups, the UK government has asked the EU for an extension until 2023.
DUP leader Mrs. Foster, along with Sinn Féin vice-president Ms. O’Neill, attended the joint committee, chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.
Following the meeting, Mrs. Foster told BBC Newsline she was not surprised that agreement had not been reached and accused the EU of being “tone-deaf” to unionists’ concerns.
She said the EU’s solution was “more protocol, not less.”
But speaking to the same program, Ms. O’Neill said the meeting had allowed both sides to focus on finding solutions, adding that another committee meeting would take place before the end of March.
In a joint statement, Mr. Sefcovic and Mr. Gove said they “reiterated their full commitment to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions” and “to the proper implementation of the Protocol.”
It continued that the UK “noted that it would provide a new operational plan concerning supermarkets and their suppliers, alongside additional investment in digital solutions for traders following the Protocol.”
Analysis: ‘Door is not closed.’
The Joint Committee meeting has not delivered the extension to the grace periods that NI businesses would like.
But a careful reading of the EU and UK statement suggests that the door is not closed.
It refers to a ‘new operational plan’ for supermarkets and their suppliers, which is understood to be a grace period by another name.
But further discussions on phasing and choreography will be required before anything is confirmed.
Both parties agreed to hold a further joint committee and engage “with business groups and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland.”
Northern Ireland has remained part of the EU’s single market for goods and enforces EU customs rules at its ports.
That means EU import rules have applied to goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain since 1 January.
However, the grace periods mean that all the EU’s procedures do not yet apply.
Some food businesses, preeminent retailers, do not need to comply with all the EU’s usual certification requirements.
Additionally, parcels carrying goods valued at £135 or below do not need customs declarations.
In the aftermath of the Article 16 controversy, Mr. Gove wrote to the EU asking for longer grace periods.
He also asked the EU to examine its decision to ban the importation into Northern Ireland of some items like seed potatoes and ease the rules for pets being taken across the Irish Sea.
In response, the EU did not rule out longer grace periods, but it is unlikely to agree to the long extension requested by Mr. Gove.