EU and UK strike a deal on trade data in sign of improved relations

13 January 2023

Some progress was made in EU-UK relations this week as both sides came to an agreement on EU access to UK IT systems governing the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Many have welcomed the move as a significant development in ongoing talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol and has provided some hope that further progress can be made ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in April. 

The agreement was announced following a meeting in London between UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and the EU’s chief post-Brexit negotiator, Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič. In a joint press statement released on 9 January, it was acknowledged that “while a range of critical issues need to be resolved to find a way forward, an agreement was reached [9 January] on the way forward regarding the specific question of the EU’s access to UK IT systems.” Both officials further noted that this development is a critical “prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance, and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions”. 

Finding an agreement over access to trade data under post-Brexit arrangements has been a major point of contention between the UK and EU for some time now. Brussels has long sought access to live or semi-live data on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland in order to assess whether checks were necessary on goods travelling between the two. 

This will ease EU concerns that goods could enter Ireland without paying EU customs. Many capitals across the EU had previously been very frustrated with the lack of progress from the UK side in this debate. The oversight of incoming goods, which potentially posed risks to the Single Market, was of great concern to some member states, particularly in relation to risks such as the spread of animal diseases. After arguing that such systems take time to establish,  Britain has now built a new system that will provide the EU with real-time data relating to the transit of goods. 

The agreement has been welcomed on all sides increasing hopes that it could provide a new basis for future talks between the EU and UK, in particular over finding a solution to the ongoing disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

In general, improvements in EU-UK relations have been evident since Rishi Sunak took over as the UK’s Prime Minister, who is seen as a more pragmatic figure than his two predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. 

Talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol continued this week with leaders from Dublin and London meeting with Northern Irish political leaders. The 19 January deadline to form a power-sharing executive is fast approaching and the DUP continue to insist they will not form an executive until significant changes are made to the Protocol. Many expect next week’s deadline will not be met. 

Mr Cleverly, Mr Heaton-Harris and Mr Šefčovič are scheduled to speak again on 16 January to take stock of progress made on the agreement. The joint statement read, the “EU and UK technical teams will work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding.”