Lord Frost warned 'difficult issues remain' on Northern Ireland's post-Brexit rules today after talks with EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic failed to achieve a breakthrough.
The Cabinet Office minister and the vice president of the European Commission met for dinner in Brussels last night amid hopes that they are inching towards a settlement.
The Northern Ireland protocol agreed by Boris Johnson and the EU has been blamed for fuelling recent violence on the streets of Belfast, with loyalists furious it hampers trade with mainland Britain.
A government spokesman said after the discussions that there is 'some positive momentum' and there will be 'intensified contacts at all levels in the coming weeks'.
But they cautioned that was no resolution yet, while the EU said the protocol was still the 'only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and preserve peace and stability, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market'.
Mr Sefcovic also made clear that the EU's legal action against Britain for breaching the terms will continue “as long as necessary”.
As efforts to find a path through the impasse ramped up yesterday, Lord Frost, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also met Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney.
Meanwhile, MEPs on two key EU committees yesterday voted by an 'overwhelming majority' to recommend that the European Parliament backs the Brexit trade deal between the bloc and Britain.
Lord Frost, the Cabinet Office minister (pictured left in Brussels last night), met with EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic for talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol
The protocol has inflamed community tensions as unionists believe the processes create an Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which threatens the Union
Brussels and Britain are scrambling to improve the implementation of the protocol against a backdrop of recent violence in Northern Ireland.
The atmosphere surrounding the talks was said to have 'warmed up a bit' earlier this week with discussions 'advancing on a technical level'.
The protocol was agreed by the EU and UK as part of the Brexit divorce deal and it is designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
It achieves that by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods, with regulatory checks and inspections now required on agri-food produce moving into the region from the rest of the UK.
The new arrangements have caused some disruption to trade since the start of the year as firms have struggled with new processes and administration.
The checks have also inflamed community tensions as unionists believe the processes create an Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which threatens the Union.
The protocol has been blamed as a factor behind the recent upsurge in violence in loyalist areas.
Last month the UK Government unilaterally decided to extend post-Brexit grace periods on certain trade checks in Northern Ireland in an attempt to reduce friction.
That prompted the EU to accuse the UK of breaching international law as the bloc launched formal legal action.
In a statement released after the latest talks, the UK government said: 'Lord Frost said that the intensive discussions between the co-chairs of the Specialised Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in recent weeks had begun to clarify the outstanding issues, and some positive momentum had been established.
“But a number of difficult issues remained and it was important to continue to discuss them. He agreed there should be intensified contacts at all levels in the coming weeks.”
The EU commission said a resolution to the current problems can only be found through “joint actions and through joint bodies”.
“The vice-president reiterated the EU’s commitment to the protocol, which is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and to preserve peace and stability, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market,” the commission said in a statement.
“Only joint solutions, agreed in the joint bodies established by the Withdrawal Agreement, can provide the stability and predictability that is needed in Northern Ireland.”
The commission said Mr Sefcovic had made clear that its ongoing legal actions against the UK for breaching the provisions of the protocol would be continued for “as long as necessary”.
The European parliament's trade and foreign affairs committees voted yesterday in what is the second to last step in the parliamentary ratification process of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement.
The deal has already been rolled out, with the post-Brexit transition period having ended on January 1, and the UK Parliament backed it before it was implemented.
But the EU's lengthy ratification process means it is being approved retrospectively.
However, a date for a final vote to ratify the deal in a plenary session of the European Parliament has not yet been set.
Last month the UK Government unilaterally decided to extend post-Brexit grace periods on certain trade checks in Northern Ireland in an attempt to reduce friction. That prompted the EU to accuse the UK of breaching international law as the bloc launched formal legal action