Blog: It will take more than an icy stumble to knock EU’s ‘Mr Brexit’ Sefcovic off course on North trade deal –

Maros Sefcovic could do worse than look up the folkloric tale told to generations of English schoolchildren about how William the Conqueror fell as he landed to invade Britain in 1066.

he story goes that the Norman leader had the presence of mind to calm his troops’ superstitious fears by grabbing sand and stones and announcing he had “seized this land”.

Similarly, the EU’s “Mr Brexit” could attribute his stumble on icy steps yesterday to his eagerness for a deal with the UK over how to manage Northern Ireland’s special trade status.

The incident certainly broke the ice – perhaps a bit too literally – for his first face-to-face meeting with the UK’s new Brexit talks leader, foreign minister Liz Truss.

The British press dubbed this meeting at Chevening House, a stately 17th-century mansion at Sevenoaks in Kent, as a “charm offensive by Ms Truss” at a state property traditionally used by the UK foreign minister.

The whole of Britain is agog at the “bring-your-own-booze party” controversy engulfing Prime Minister Boris Johnson right now.

Not even the secluded location can insulate these talks, set to continue today, from the Boris party hullabaloo.

There was speculation the timing could help Truss, always cited among potential Johnson successors, because taking a Brexit tough line with Brussels would do no harm at all.

Behind all the noise surrounding this ongoing, year-old EU-UK row, there are two hard facts.

First is that a compromise deal is very possible. Second is that time is short, with a view that things must be sorted well before Northern Ireland Assembly elections due on May 5.

The Irish Government has said a deal is needed by the end of February. The issue cannot be allowed dominate the North’s elections.

Some progress was made, with the EU offering to halve customs checks and reduce food and animal checks by 80pc. The European Parliament’s health and environment committee will this week discuss another Sefcovic offer – to allow UK medicines circulate freely in the North despite its de facto EU single-market status.

But London has already said this is not enough and on Sunday Truss repeated the UK’s unhelpful threat to apply an “emergency brake” and unilaterally suspend the North’s special status.

However, both sides went out of their way to strike a positive note in advance of these talks, which will later today give us a clear indication how things stand.

A legal-political device can be found to get around the UK red-line demand that the European Court of Justice cannot be the ultimate arbiter of single-market disputes involving the North.

Sefcovic is implacable in his insistence that the EU Court has the final say in all single-market disputes – though it is only rarely deployed.

The UK is pushing for exemption from all checks for goods coming from Britain to the North that are not destined to travel further.

The EU has said it has gone as far as it can, and pointed to the need to protect the 27-nation, border-free single market from the North being used as a back door.

But talks could focus on the detail of devices to dial down checks much further. Still, any solution will require the UK showing some flexibility on the principle of checks.

These two days of discussions were scheduled to be divided into three sections, with time deliberately factored in to allow for walks in the splendid garden and grounds.

Commissioner Sefcovic is a veteran of EU negotiations and it will take more than an icy stumble to derail his ambition.

He has recently stressed the Northern Ireland deal element is central to EU-UK relations.

Last night’s dinner menu seemed an attempt to stress UK unity, with Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and local Kentish apple pie. No mention of an Ulster fry. 

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