Brexit Talks Are Stuck With Little Hope of Progress Before May

European Union and U.K. attempts to jump-start negotiations over the post-Brexit trading relationship in Northern Ireland have so far failed to make any progress, and diplomats see little chance for any substantial progress until they get past a key election scheduled for May.

The two sides haven’t moved at all on the substance of their differences over cross-border trade in Northern Ireland, even though the tone has been more constructive, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The negotiations have been at a standstill for months, even after the U.K. appointed a new Brexit chief, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, in December, who many hoped would give the process new momentum. The EU has said there was a window of opportunity for a deal through the end of the month before campaigning begins for Northern Ireland assembly elections in May.   

In the meantime, political turmoil in Belfast and London is another distraction, with the collapse of Northern Ireland’s executive and U.K. Prime Minister battling for his political future in the so-called Partygate scandal. 

Truss will meet with her EU counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, on Friday to continue discussions, even though talks haven’t moved forward, according to an EU official, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations are private. 

At issue is the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed by Johnson that allowed the region to remain in the bloc’s single market by putting a customs border in the Irish Sea. Johnson has declined to implement all the requirements of the protocol, saying it has disrupted trade and needs to be renegotiated. He has threatened to invoke Article 16, which allows either side to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol.

Last week, a minister in Northern Ireland provoked an uproar by ordering inspections on agri-food goods to stop, only to have a Belfast court overrule him. The EU had decried the original order as a breach of international law, even as the British government insisted it was a matter for the region’s power-sharing assembly. 

“The protocol does not require, contrary to the way it is being applied by our friends, it does not require that all foods and all medicines and all plants should be systematically checked in the way that they are,” Johnson said in the House of Commons on Wednesday. “We must fix it and with goodwill and with common sense I believe we can fix it, Mr. Speaker. If our friends don’t show the requisite common sense, then of course we will trigger Article 16.”

While Truss has brought a more constructive tone to the discussions, she hasn’t moved from the positions of her predessor, David Frost, according to the people. The U.K. wants to end checks on U.K. products destined for Northern Ireland and to end the role of the bloc’s top court. 

The clash over the protocol led to the resignation last week of Northern Ireland First Minister Paul Givan, which effectively paralyzed the region’s government. Under the Good Friday agreement, the first minister and deputy first minister  — one unionist and one nationalist — have equal powers and one cannot be in place without the other.  

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